SEOUL — In South Korea, many young women come under pressure to find a husband and start a family. Some believe their single status to be the result of bad luck and they will do whatever they feel is necessary to improve their chances of finding a perfect match. That includes changing their names.
A rose by any other name....
When Yu Do-hyung 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, when she was known as Young-ah, Yu’s father persuaded her to change her name.
"At first I was angry," she said. "My new name was very strange. I hate that sound of the new name, because the new name is like a man’s name."
Yu’s father was not trying to make her name sound more masculine. He was trying to bring her better luck.
There is a belief in Korea that a name can determine one’s destiny. And, for many lonely hearted ladies as well as their parents, the hope is that by changing their name they will have a better chance at meeting that special someone for marriage.
For help with selecting a more virtuous name, some seek the advice of fortune-tellers or other "divinely inspired" mediums - like Tae-Eul, a shaman priest who consults clients from a shrine inside his Seoul apartment.
He says he asks the gods if a new name can be fulfilling for one’s life. Tae-Eul says his male clients want to change their name for better luck in making money, but women do it to find a soul mate.
Tae-Eul says a name can bring bad luck if the Chinese characters it is based on do not match with the person’s birth date. He says he has seen good results for those who have changed their names to more compatible ones.
In the past decade, at least 725,000 Koreans have legally changed their name, according to the nation’s supreme court. There are no statistics though on how many did it for better luck or to help find a partner.
Young South Korean women feel especially pressured to get married, says Grace Chung, who lectures on family studies at Seoul National University. She says in Korea’s conformist culture, an unmarried woman is looked down on by her married friends, co-workers and family.
“It's this idea that is stuck in their head that everybody has to marry, the earlier the better. That's how happiness is defined," said Chung. "If someone is not married, they want to know why. They want to lead you in the path that they walked that they believe is the right way to happiness."
Chung says, as an unmarried woman herself, she has learned to just ignore those voices. But for other young women, the pressure really gets to them. And, they will do whatever they can to please their parents or peers. That could include changing their names.
Other observers say taking on a new name is a form of escapism. Jasper Kim heads the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group in Seoul. He says the nation’s rapid economic development has put a lot of stress on everyone and that some people think a new name will make life easier.
"I think the usage of another name has an avatar effect. It’s another persona that can be different from your everyday persona," he said. "And, that allows for an extension or a complete separation into another self. 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."
Even Tae-Eul, the shaman priest, says Koreans are putting too much hope on a new name.
He says lot of Koreans have this idea of a new life, of starting over. He says, instead of changing their names, the Koreans should be changing the problems in their lives that depress them.
But Yu Do-hyung, the woman whose father pressured her to take on a different name, says ever since then she has felt more confident. She says she now really likes her new name.
"Now, it feels very fit for me," said Yu. "New name cannot change my whole life, changing [to] new name gives me good power and energy for me. I think my new name makes me feel better."
But sadly, Yu says her new name still has not helped her find "Mr. Right".