When Yu Do-hyun looks at her ID card, she experiences a brief moment of confusion. The face staring back at her is a familiar one, but the name is something she had to get used to. Three years ago, Yu was persuaded by her father to change her given name.
"At first when I saw my new name, it was strange and I hated the sound of it," Yu, who was once known as Young-ah, said. "It's like a man's name."
Her father's intention wasn't to make her name sound more androgynous, it was to bring her better luck, especially in finding Mr. Right. Frustrated by unmarried offspring, some Korean parents are taking another shot at giving their kids a name they can be proud of. Lonely-hearted singles, too, are parting with the names they've grown up with in favor of a more virtuous one.
During the last decade, at least 725,000 Koreans legally changed their name. Gaining official permission to do so was made easier by a Supreme Court ruling in 2005. There are no statistics on how many people register with new names for the sole purpose of receiving better luck.
For help with selecting a more auspicious name, one doesn't have to look far. Tents set up outside women's universities advertise name-changing advice. Type "name change" into Korean portal site Naver and you'll be hit with a deluge of mostly shady looking agencies specializing in the art of creating better names. But most people do it the old fashioned way -- seek the consultation of fortune-tellers or other divinely inspired mediums.
"I ask the gods if a new name can be fulfilling for one's life," says Tae Eul, a shaman priest, known in Korean as a "mudang."
Tae Eul says of his clients who ask for his guidance in choosing a luckier name, two-thirds are unmarried or divorced women concerned with finding a soul mate. The men, he says, are more concerned with their bank accounts.
"You have to be very careful about changing your name, because it can determine the rest of your life," Tae Eul, who communes with the spirit world inside a small shrine located in his Nonhyun-dong apartment in southern Seoul, said. "How a person's destiny unfolds is based on luck and their saju."
Saju is the belief that one's birth date determines their destiny. It's believed to have been practiced throughout East Asia for millennia.
All dates correspond to the five elements: earth, metal, water, fire and wood. And so do Korean names based on Chinese characters.
Tae Eul explains that bad luck occurs when one's saju and name are in conflict. It not only can prevent a person from finding a spouse but also lead to trouble after the wedding.
"Usually there is a collision between the spirits found within the names of the partners. If a man has a fire spirit in his name and the woman does, too, that could lead to more fights," in which case Tae Eul recommends the husband change his name. "I've seen a lot of improvements."
Giving credence to fortune-tellers like Tae Eul, some young women who have undergone a name change say they do feel more fortunate.
"In the past, when I went through some negative experiences, I felt my old name was not bringing me good luck," says Roh Hee-seung, 27, who until five years earlier was named Lan. "My new name is like a lucky charm."
Roh will marry her long time boyfriend later this year. When asked if she thinks her new name had some influence, she says she's not too sure about that.
Other so-called name change experts say luck has nothing to do with it. It all comes down to science, says Hwang Seung-hyun.
"Pure Hangul names possess sexual energy," Hwang, a lecturer at the Name Theory Lab, said. He believes Korean names that contain syllables ending with certain consonants are more erotic than ones that do not. "This energy is stimulated when it's spoken by a partner. And through its attractiveness it helps some people find a soul mate."
Some observers point out that in the Korean context, people just don't feel as connected to their given names as those from the West.
Whether someone chooses a new Korean name or uses an English name to speak with foreigners, it produces a sort of "avatar effect," according to Jasper Kim, the founder of the think tank Asia-Pacific Global Research Group.
"I think Koreans, when they feel so constrained with their lives, so pressured and so busy, that this ability to enter into a different persona through a different name is something that can be appealing for a lot of people," Kim said at his office at Ewha Womans University, where he teaches in the Graduate School of International Studies.
Kim says that South Korea's rapid growth from a dirt poor nation a generation ago to one of the world's wealthiest economies has left many feeling lost. And they are seeking comfort in traditions like saju and shamanism.
"They look to the past for a security blanket", he said.
Even some involved in the name-change business see an error in thinking that a new name can be a quick fix for the problems of modern life.
"Koreans have a tendency to desire a new life and start over again because they think their current life is so bad," says Tae Eul, the shaman priest. "Life isn't really bad, it just all depends on how well you cope with what you are given and handle the circumstances that you are living with." Tae Eul adds that he thinks it's a sad situation that so many people want to change their names.
But for Yu Do-hyun, the woman whose father pressured her to take on a new name, there is no looking back.
"After I changed my name, I feel more confident," she said.
Yu does note that despite her father's hopes, her love life has pretty much remained the same. But her new name has resulted in some unwanted attention.
"Because Do-hyun is a male's name, I got a lot of spam mail for sex partners and Viagra," she said.
Yu is not so sure if that'll help break the ice on her next date. (Yonhap)
유도현 씨는 3년 전 “유영아라는 이름이 알맞은 남편감을 찾기에 좋지 않다”는 아버지의 권유로 지금의 이름으로 개명했다. “처음에는 남자이름 같아 마음에 들지 않았다”는 그녀이지만 좋은 배필을 만났으면 하는 부모들의 바람 때문에 그녀처럼 이제껏 함께 살아온 이름을 바꾸는 성인 남녀의 수가 많아지고 있다. 지난 10년 동안 한국에서는 최소 72만 5천 명이 공식적으로 개명 신청을 해 이름을 바꿨으며 2005년에는 대법원 판결로 개명절차와 허가요건이 간소해지기도 하였다. 현재 얼마나 많은 수의 사람들이 단순히 운 때문에 개명을 하는지에 대한 공식적인 통계는 알려지지 않았다.
새로운 삶을 위해 개명을 원하는 사람들은 대부분 소위 ‘용하다’는 점쟁이를 찾아가거나 영적인 수단을 사용한다. 무속인 태을 씨는 “개명한 이름이 그 사람의 남은 삶을 만족시켜 줄 수 있을지 신에게 물어본다”고 말하며 그에게 조언을 얻길 원하는 사람들 중 과반수가 늦은 나이까지 결혼을 못한 여성이거나 이혼한 여성이라고 밝혔다. 이어 “새로운 이름은 그 사람의 여생을 좌우하기 때문에 개명을 할 때에는 매우 신중해야 한다”며 “인간의 운명은 타고난 운과 사주에 의해 결정”되는데 “나쁜 운은 그 사람의 사주와 이름이 충돌할 때 일어나는 것”이라고 덧붙였다.
노희정(27, 여)씨는 과거 나쁜 일들을 겪으며 그 원인이 이름 때문이라는 생각에 5년 전 ‘노란’이라는 이름에서 현재의 이름으로 개명했다. 자신의 새 이름이 “마치 행운의 부적 같다”고 소감을 밝힌 그녀이지만 개명을 함으로써 좋은 변화가 일어났는지는 확신할 수 없다고 대답했다.
작명 전문가인 황승현 씨는 이름이 운명을 결정할 수 있는가에 대해 과학적으로 밝혀진 바가 없으며 (이름이 개인의 삶에 영향을 줄 수 있는 점은) “순수 한글로 이루어진 이름이 이성에게 호감을 줄 수 있는 정도”라고 말했다. 그의 말에 따르면 특정한 종성으로 끝나는 한글 이름은 그렇지 않은 이름보다 성적 매력이 있다고 한다. “(특정한 종성으로 끝나는 한글이름은) 이성에게 불려질 때 호감을 불러일으키기 때문에” 매력적인 이름이 배우자를 찾을 때 도움이 될 수 있다는 것이다.
다른 작명 전문가들 또한 새로운 이름이 현재의 삶에 급격한 변화와 행운을 가져다 줄 수 있다고 생각하는 것은 옳지 않다고 입을 모았다. 무속인 태을 씨는 “현재 자신의 삶이 불행하다고 생각하는 한국인들이 새로운 삶을 시작하고자 하는 경향이 있다”고 말하며 “현재의 삶이 불행한 것이 아니라 행복은 본인이 자신이 처한 상황을 얼마나 잘 해결하고 극복하는지에 달려있는 것”이라고 조언했다. 이어 그는 이러한 개명 열풍이 불황이 지속되고 있는 세태를 보여주는 것 같아 씁쓸하다고 소감을 밝혔다.