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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 30, 2008

The story behind Korean family names

By Jeff Chung

I think it would be an interesting journey for local Koreans to trace their family roots back as far as they can. Who knows, your family tree could trace back to a famous person in the dynasty period. Perhaps it wouldn't be far-fetched to trace your family back to a character you see on one of the historical dramas on television nowadays.

Nearly every Korean family has a "family tree" book outlining their ancestors and roots going back many generations. Surnames, or sung, are always associated with the province of origin, or bon.

Take the common Korean surname Kim, for example. There are Kim families from the Kim-hae province, Kim families from the An-dong province and Kim families from the Kyongju province. Then there are surnames, such as Kwon and Bae, whose roots are in just one province.

Surname and province origin long played an important role in the country's culture, because all those who had the same last name and also the same provincial origin were considered to be related and therefore could not get married. The law was tied to concerns about birth defects resulting from mating in the same gene pool.

Korean laws changed recently to permit those who have the same surname and provincial origin to marry. Still, conservative families feel very uncomfortable with this matter and may not approve of such a marriage.

A third step of finding out your family lineage, or pa, involves pinpointing which person you are a descendant of within a province. If your sung, bon and pa are the same, that is really narrowing it down, and you could probably trace both your roots within one family tree book. It is unusual to meet a stranger who has the same sung, bon and pa. If you do, offer a hug as you have met a relative.

In the past, following a divorce, the children took the father's last name, even if they were raised by the mother. But recently, with divorces increasing and single mothers obtaining custody of children, there is the option of having their children take the mother's maiden name.

When women marry in Korea, their names were added to the man's family tree. However, to this day, Korean women keep their maiden name and do not assume the husband's family name. So, it's not like in the United States where you would say Mr. and Mrs. Kim. The husband's surname could be Kim and the wife's name could be Choi. The new laws will keep the family tree record-keepers very busy with divorces, adding and deleting names of children.

In dynasty-period Korea, surnames were important as it predetermined your life. There were surnames of nobility and surnames of servants. In those days, a person of nobility could not marry a person of a servant class. And servants were always servants, no matter how brilliant or ambitious. Only individuals of nobility-class families five families with specific surnames from specific provinces could be considered for marriage to the royal family.

When I meet Korean people, in passing conversation they will ask what my last name is and they ask what provincial origin it is. In some cases, they are the same, but this doesn't mean I have found a long-lost brother; it simply means we're related somehow over many generations. Sure, you can joke about it and say you are related but you could have a challenging time trying to figure out just how related you are.

I have met some Koreans in Hawai'i with surnames I have just not seen in Korea. I have a friend, Lawrence Pai, who is a third-generation Korean in Hawai'i and puts Darwin's theory of evolution to the test as he doesn't look Korean but he says he is 100 percent. His Korean name, Po-chul, sounds like the largest Korean steel company. But Pai is not a Korean surname. In Lawrence's case, the closest Korean surname that would make sense is Bae.

As it turns out, when Lawrence's grandfather came to Hawai'i in 1910, the surname Bae must have been heard by immigration officials as sounding more like Pae, which was then recorded as Pai. Fortunately for Lawrence, the Korean surname Bae is from one province only, so it's easier to trace his roots. I know there are many Korean families with the surname Pai in Hawai'i. So, you may be related, if you go far back enough in your family tree.

I have another local Korean friend who really stumped me when he told me he was Korean and his surname is Dunn. Scott Dunn, who is active in the community, is older than I am but looks my age, or even younger. I thought he was of Chinese ancestry. Turns out his grandfather, who came from North Korea, had the surname Chun but somewhere, somehow, the name got changed to Dunn. I don't know if it's possible to trace the roots to surnames in North Korea, but it's worth a try.

The Internet has many ways to trace your family origins. You would need to specify provincial origin and pa to make things easier.

Giveaway contest: In celebration of KBFD-TV's 22nd anniversary, KBFD-TV and Yami Yogurt (Ala Moana Center) will be giving away 22 gift certificates for a free medium-size yogurt. Question: What is the name of the queen in the series "King & I," on the verge of being dethroned? E-mail your answer to jeffchung@kbfd.com or mail in your answer to KBFD TV, 1188 Bishop St., Suite PH1, Honolulu, HI 96813. Winners will be randomly drawn from entries.

THIS WEEK'S K-DRAMA SYNOPSES

'BRIDE FROM VIETNAM'

Episodes 63 and 64

Tonight at 7: Ji-young comes into Ok-kyong's bedroom to ask for one last chance and discovers Ok-kyong unconscious. Ok-kyong ends up in the hospital for drug overdose. Jin-ju tells Se-mi that Okkyong's overdose is her fault and that Sung-il is her long-lost father.

Tonight at 8: Four years later, the Kang family still shares a loving home. Jun-wu surprises Jin-ju for her birthday with a trip as a gift, but Jin-ju wants to cancel the trip until everything gets resolved. Ok-kyong and Young-su come back to Korea for Young-su's photography exhibition.

'KING & I'

Episodes 47 and 48

Tomorrow at 7:45 p.m.: Sohwa gives her jade amulet, the symbol of the king's love for her, back to the king and tells him the jewel no longer has any meaning when his heart has left her. This infuriates the king even more. The queen mother and the court officials seriously consider the dethronement of the queen.

Tuesday at 7:45 p.m.: Queen mother suggests the king take a new queen. But Prince Yung urges his father to bring his mother back to the palace. Chi-gyeom comes back as the chief of the eunuch department and reassigns Chuh-sun to menial work.

'BAD GUY'

Episodes 15 and 16 (final episode)

Wednesday at 7:45 p.m.: Oh-joon tries to push Dal-lae away, even when she knows the truth about Oh-joon's illness. Man-doo's parents adamantly say they need to "stomp out" Man-doo's "illness." On the brighter side, Jin-goo quits his job to be able to have more fun. He invites Soon-dae to his house and they have fun together. Oh-joon visits her sister, only to see his brother-in-law beating her.

Thursday at 7:45 p.m.: Despite Oh-joon's condition, Dal-lae and her mother-in-law agree to accept him. Meanwhile, Jin-goo takes his last chance at being accepted by Dal-lae. Facing rejection, Jin-goo reflects on his experiences and memories with Dal-lae and Soon-dae, and comes to terms with his aging father.

'SCARY GIRL'

Episodes 49, 50 and 51, 52

Friday at 7:45 p.m.: Kyung-pyo tells Young-rim of Eun-hae's pregnancy, and begs her to leave the company. Young-rim only smirks at him. Kyung-pyo vows revenge if anything happens to Eun-hae. Young-rim tells him to talk to the chairman if he wants to fire her.

Saturday at 7:45 p.m.: Seung-mi confronts Kyung-pyo and Eun-hae at the office, but Young-rim drags her out of the office, telling her she promised the chairman never to tell Eun-hae about her relationship with Kyung-pyo. Eun-hae visits Seung-mi to ask her about Kyung-pyo and Young-rim. Seung-mi tells her about Young-rim's miscarriage, the car accident and her two-year disappearance.

Jeff Chung is general manager of KBFD TV, which televises Korean dramas with English subtitles in Hawai'i. Reach him for comment at 521-8066 or jeffchung@kbfd.com.