Adjusting to Korean Life - What Name to Use

*This post is meant to be introductory in nature and is no way comprehensive in addressing adopted Koreans and/or identity*

On What Name to Use

2015 G.O.A.'L Potluck Picnic

What’s your name? This can be a potentially hard question for adoptees living in Korea. We may struggle with what name to use and in what setting. What name shall I use with Korean friends? Birth family members? Adoptee friends? Other foreign friends?

In my case, besides using my Korean name for things like waiting for a table at a restaurant or getting my dry cleaning done, I use my western name in all my social circles. This includes my Korean friends. It’s the only name I remember using. Even if someone does know my Korean name, they rarely use it with me. Also, I’m not used to answering to it. Although, I do tell my Korean friends if they are more comfortable using my Korean name they are free to do so.

There are some instances where your Korean name may be used without your explicit permission. For example, when I registered for national health insurance, I was registered under my Korean name as it appears on my alien registration card. Koreans tend to be more comfortable with native Korean names. Plus, not all websites and systems in Korea are set-up to properly handle western names which have many more characters than Korean names.

In terms of name usage with birth family members, while I have not been reunited with my birth family, many of my adoptee friends have and below are some of their comments regarding name usage with their birth families.

[Friend 1] My friend uses her Korean name with her birth family. She said it is comfortable for both her and her birth family members. She stated she has no preference as to which name her birth family uses with her.

[Friend 2] This friend uses his Korean name with his birth family exclusively. He is fine with using his Korean name with his birth family and said it “just happened” and that it did not take any time getting used to it. He said that he has no real preference on what name he uses with his birth family.

[Friend 3] My other friend does not use his Korean name, even with his birth family. Many of his birth family members speak English and use western names as well. Even if someone does call him his Korean name, he is not used to answering to it.

Besides birth family members, what name is used with adoptee friends? Most adoptees I know have adoptee friends in Korea. Personally, I have always used my western name with my adoptee friends, although some elect to use their Korean name.

What about when meeting other foreigners? I have always used my western name. However, other foreigners may ask you if you have a Korean name. It took some time for me to feel comfortable sharing my Korean name with other foreigners. For other adoptees, they may enjoy standing out by using their Korean name.

Regardless, it’s up to you. Use whatever name you feel comfortable with. I have come to find that sometimes an adoptee is known by three or more names - their Korean name, their western name, and some nickname(s) within their family & friend circles.

Korean Titles and Names

Often you may meet Koreans and only hear them being called by a title (호칭). You may hear people calling their boss “boss” and their brother “brother” and never by their name. During Korean language school, many of my friends never knew the teachers’ names since we only called them “teacher” (선생님).

In addition, at Korean schools you may have also heard the terms seonbae and hoobae (선배/후배). “Seonbae” is be used by junior students when they address senior students. This term may also be used in university club settings. “Hoobae” is used when senior students talk about junior students but is never used to address the junior students. That is, a senior student does not directly call a junior student “hoobae”.

If I do call one of my Korean friends by their name, it is never just their name. You should attach an honorific to the end of their name. If you are with a close friend or talking with a child, you can add -아/야 (e.g. 수영아 not just 수영). Although, to be safe you should ask if it is ok with your Korean friend to use this casual form.

If you are of similar speech level (like at work) you should attach -씨 (e.g. 동민씨, not just 동민). Otherwise, if someone is much older or in a higher position than you, they can just be called their title (e.g. Team Leader - 팅장님, Professor - 교수님, etc).

Also, there are very few Korean family names and many Koreans may also share the same given name. If you work in a large company or attend a big school, you may have to say something like 소현 from accounting or 도윤 from Busan.

There are many more honorifics and titles in the Korean language and unfortunately it would take a long time to review them all, but I wanted to give at least a few examples. There are also numerous titles used for family members that can differ depending on if someone is on your mother or father’s side of the family. For example, the terms used with siblings or close friends: oppa, eonni, hyung, dongsaeng (오빠/언니/형/동생).

Do Koreans Use Nicknames?

It is common in the United States and other countries to often use a nickname (a substitute for your legal name) even when introducing yourself to someone new. In my experience, Koreans rarely do this and usually introduce themselves using their legal name. Although in some instances, Koreans do decide to use a western name or nickname. Among my Korean friends, if they do use a western name, it is because they just like the name, they don't like their Korean given name, or are told to use a western name by their employer, school, etc. There can be other reasons as well.


What name do you use while living in Korea? Have you had experiences with Korean titles? Leave a comment below. For more posts about adjusting to Korean Life, stay tuned to the G.O.A.’L blog and feel free to email me here for questions regarding life in Korea.

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