What’s in a name?

The unique origins of my alcohol-themed Korean name

Most Western people have no idea what meaning their names have. In my case, my father wanted to give me a name that would allow for us to have the same initials — something my maternal grandfather had done with his children.

My grandfather, Roger, named his children Rachelle, Roseanne, Raymond and, in my mother’s case, Reina. My father, Pierre, adopted the same attitude on the day of my birth and named me Patrick. I’m not sure if my parents undertook an onomastic study of names before eventually deciding on one, but I’m quite certain that when I emerged on that cold January day thirty years ago, my father was oblivious to the meaning of the name he had chosen to give me.

Patrick, according to my internet research, means “nobleman” — which is flattering. Whether it is an accurate depiction of who I am will greatly depend on who you ask, I suppose.

Three years in South Korea taught me quite a bit, including that while many Korean parents were very particular about the Hangul names they chose for their children, a younger generation seeks convenience more than meaning in their choice of unofficial English names, adopting an approach similar to that of my parents. A woman named Ji Eun would typically select an English name that starts with the letter “J” — Jenny, Jinny, or Jane, for example.

A post-dinner photo taken with my boss’ two kids in 2008. My boss adopted me in as an honourary member of his family, something not taken very seriously in the Western world but which carries more weight in South Korea. These boys were and are honourary nephews.
(From left to right: Don, Somaek and Bob Cho)

So it would come as no surprise when one evening, during the course of my weekly family dinner with my CEO’s family, that one of his children asked me for an English name. It was easy for them to take me in as I was the only Westerner working at the company’s Seoul headquarters. The relationship between my boss, the company’s CEO, and I, was professional as well as personal. The request would occur during one of the bigger dinners, which included my boss, his wife and children, his parents, as well as his elder sister and her family all dining together in the suburbs of Seoul.

The request for an English name is one I had been exposed to before, having worked previously at an English school in Korea. It’s quite common for a new student to request a suggestion for an English name. Past requests were usually dismissed rather quickly, giving a student whatever name was first to pop into my head, the request I’d received from my boss’ children was different. I wanted to give the boys something that was relevant to their personalities. These boys were essentially my honourary nephews, and everyone in the family, including my boss’ parents, welcomed me as one of their own.

First to receive a name was the oldest of the two, who was a bright 13-year-old who was born with a medical condition which made him unable to use his arms or legs. His mind; however, was as sharp as anyone’s and he made it a point to teach me, with the little English that he knew, about Korea’s vast monarchial history. My interests in Korea’s Joseon dynasty originates directly from my conversations with him.

His other passion, and perhaps his greatest love, was food. His disability rendered him unable to feed himself, so his mother would always sit next to him at the table to feed him, a task that required a kind of saintly patience as his appetite was endless. One of the features of these weekly dinners was a generous amount of food and drink, abundant laughs and Kwanghee Cho routinely yelling out “bap juo” (밥줘) — which in Korean means “give me food”.

“What about Bob,” was the obvious suggestion I would make to 13-year-old Kwanghee.

Their family name, “Cho” made it easy to work with almost any English name that sounded like a Korean word. The Korean word “juo” is “to give”, and “Cho” sounded a lot like it. To adopt the name Bob Cho would sound a lot like the Korean phrase meaning “give me food”, and the whole family laughed at the comical, yet serious suggestion. The boy’s father, my boss, insisted that the child take the name, and the newly-named Bob Cho expressed no objection.

The situation in naming 10-year-old Kyunghee Cho was a little more challenging. He was practically fluent in English, after having spent only ten weeks in Canada as an exchange student. He returned to Korea after I had arrived, so I had already known the family well before meeting him for the first time.

He loved sports, and I got him turned onto hockey during my two years there, playing street hockey with him in the park as much as I could as Korean passersby watched with awe. Soccer was the game to play on the Korean peninsula, and seeing people play street hockey was something of a spectacle.

But there was nothing in his pool of interests that struck me as appropriate in terms of finding him an English name. So I turned to other attributes, particularly zeroing-in on his love of money. He was truly his father’s son, trying to cut deals with me which would see him earn a little extra cash. He would make the short walk to my apartment every morning before school and shine my shoes for the equivalent of ten-dollars per week. When the wage was not enough for him, he offered me more services, and for a period of time near the end of my tenure, he also folded my laundry for an extra ten-dollars weekly. When all was said and done, by late 2009, he was earning almost $100-per-month from me.

One of the things that struck me was just how diligent this kid was — in fact, the kind of diligence and commitment he showed in performing this work outperformed many who are older than he is. It was surprising and inspiring to see someone so young work so hard. He never complained and never asked for anything for free. He was equally serious when pay day came around, telling me “tohn juo” (돈줘) — which meant “give me money”.

From “tohn” came the name Don, and it stuck with him. Young Kyunghee finally had his English name: Don Cho.

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect that Bob and Don, in exchange for their newly-minted English names, would give me a Korean name. As part of the family, the name “Cho” was simply a requirement. The given name was tricky because they had to come up with something meaningful — a way of describing my personality, using only two Korean syllables, as is standard with Korean names.

We had finished eating by this point, and now on to post-dinner conversation, which always included Korean alcohol for the grown-ups at the table. My boss always joked that since I had joined the family, his father was now buying a box of thirty bottles of soju, Korea’s version of vodka, every week. Prior to my arrival, a box would last the family about a month. My boss’ mother would often encourage her husband to drink in moderation, reminding him that he was no longer a young man. I’d often feel guilty pouring him another drink, over the silent objections his wife’s stern gaze, but what was I to do when the head of my boss’ family presented me with his empty glass of soju.

I’d pour him another shot, often awkwardly, knowing that across the table, his wife, the family’s matriarch, was expressing her objections silently with a cold, stern gaze. I’d pour for him using both hands, demonstrating my familiarity with all of the customs of respect required of someone drinking with elders. I loved drinking soju as well, but when I was out with my friends or on my own, I would typically mix a bottle of soju into a pitcher of beer, a drink commonly referred to as “somaek”(소맥).

Shots of soju, Korea’s spirit of choice, stand atop half-full glasses of beer. The mixture of the two is called “somaek”. (Credit: Flickr — KopSee)

Having known this, the younger Don Cho realized that “somaek” was a two-syllable word, consistent with the naming conventions used in Korea, and subsequently proposed it as my Korean name. While many within earshot of Don’s suggestion bursted out laughing, I saw some genius in the name. Bob, for his part, insisted that I use it as my chosen Korean name. He wasn’t going to refer to me by any other name.

Some of the fondest memories I have of my time in Korea have occured while I was drinking this alcoholic mixture. Even darker times in my life were made more bearable knowing that soju and beer were nearby and accessible. While many would ridicule the name given the obvious relationship to what some will call a societal vice, I have made peace with the fact that I am indeed passionate about drinking. It has been consumed in celebrations as well as an essential tool in my writing. Somaek symbolized to me much more than just booze, but a sense of overwhelming freedom; of not caring about what anyone else thinks. It was the perfect name to characterize the very person I had aspired to become. It was also very unique, which is what I had wanted.

With that, Somaek Cho was born. In interactions with Korean friends and acquaintances, I tend to offer up my Korean name. Some don’t like it, but I like it, and will stand by it. Having it provides me with an escape, though admittedly artificial, from the expectations others have of me — to be someone else for a while — someone unafraid to try new things or of the judgments of others. Someone completely able to let go of life’s stressors, whose only task is to get through the next drink, and get lost in deep thought.

This may seem silly to most, and at times I ask myself why I simply can’t let go of these apprehensions in the course of my normal life and simply conduct myself in the same manner as my other self would. The answer to this is difficult to express. Patrick has a boss, a girlfriend, a family to look out for and please. Patrick is the one that grinds out the work day. Patrick is the persona that provides me, the whole being, with a sense of normalcy and ensures the bills are paid. Somaek, on the other hand, is the philosopher. Somaek is the persona that generates the ideas that are then written out and attributed to Patrick. Patrick tries to be the optimist — Somaek is the realist that uses melancholy and despair to form a basis for a creative project. Somaek is, in essence, Patrick’s outlet.