“Yang Gil-su” by Giles Ryan (Korea)


by Giles Ryan (Korea 1970 – 72)


Giles Ryan
(Korea 1970–72)

When you were a Volunteer did you use your own name in country? Or did you have another name? Every Korea PCV had a Korean name based on a long-standing tradition going back hundreds of years to the earliest Italian foreign missionaries in China, and the Korean language teachers in the training programs simply assumed we each needed a name. The story below draws on this experience in Peace Corps/Korea.

Years later, I was married in Korea and my in-laws still call me by this name.



We all receive a name at birth and carry this name through life. True, we may have a nickname, but typically this is only a shortened form of our formal name. But imagine, if you will, acquiring an entirely different name at a later time in life, and in a different language, and written with different symbols for the sounds, and imagine that many people know you only by this new name and have no notion of any other. This happened to me.

During our Peace Corps language training we were all given a new name, and mine was Yang Gil-su. The Korean teachers — all scholars of their own language — acted on the long-established tradition of giving a Korean name to anyone from another country who came to live and work in their part of the world. The Jesuit missionaries who came to China in the 16th century were given names in this way, and we know that Matteo Ricci, the first great European scholar of the Chinese language, had such a name, and this practice continued when the first missionaries came to Korea in 1884, and in this way I had my new name in 1969.

Written in Hangul, the Korean phonemic script, my new name appeared as 양 길 수. When we were learning to read and write this alphabet, it seemed so strange at first, but soon we realized it was far more rational than the awkward and maddeningly inconsistent Greco-Roman alphabet we use for English. Our teachers first made us practice by writing our names, and in this we were no different from American children learning, very slowly, to write out Tom or Liz, or Mike or Mary. But soon, with practice, we all came to read and write Hangul letters with ease, if not fluency.

Clearly, my Korean name was intended to approximate the sound of of my English name, but much later I learned these names all had a meaning when written in Chinese. The Korean family name Yang means “willow tree.” The given name Gil-su means, more or less, “fortunate hand,” and could only have been chosen by someone who had not seen the ill-formed scribble that passed for my handwriting. No one ever used my given name because, in the formal etiquette of a Korean middle school, only family names were ever used among the teachers.

In my two years teaching at Kangwon Middle School in Chunchon, no one used my American name; instead, everyone addressed me as Yang-sŏnsaeng, using the honorific title, in the same way Japanese attach -san to a family name. Also, other people in the town addressed me in the same way, and after the first few weeks I came to take this for granted and the novelty faded. I never heard my original name unless I met an American. And so I became Yang-sŏnsaeng, and no one at school ever gave the matter a second thought — until the end of my last semester when they had to.

One day in December, near the end of my time at the school — winter had already chased the fall away, and a frigid wind blew down from Siberia, and the ground underfoot grew harder with each passing day — one of my English teacher colleagues came to me with some sign of hesitation. I could tell he wanted to ask me something but he found it difficult to approach the subject. Hwang-sŏnsaeng, was a friend as well as a colleague, we had enjoyed weekend outings together, and I had shared dinner at his home where he lived with his widowed mother, so his hesitation puzzled me.

“Yes, Hwang-sŏnsaeng, what is it? Can I help you?”

“Well, I’m not sure how to ask this, it’s embarrassing.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“Well, we all know you’ll be leaving soon and the principal wants to present you with something to express appreciation.”

“That’s very kind of him,” I said.

“The problem is,” he went on, “he wants to have a very nice commemorative plaque made for you, a kamsapae, and it will be in Korean with all the appropriate words, and it will have your picture on it, but he wants to have your name appear in English.”

“Yes,” I said, and I was just about to guess the problem when he went on.

“I’m so sorry to say this, but we don’t know your American name. We’ve always called you Yang-sŏnsaeng. The principal’s office had your true name on a document from the Ministry of Education two years ago and now they can’t find the paper. So the principal told me to ask you your name, and to get it written down so we’ll have the correct spelling. American names are so unusual. I’m sorry to ask you. This is so embarrassing.”

This struck me as so comic, and I was close to laughing, but I stopped myself. Clearly he was very discomfited by the situation, and I wanted to put him at ease. I quickly reassured him and said he mustn’t be concerned. I told him I was glad they used my Korean name, it showed they accepted me, it put me at ease. Anyway, my American name was really so hard to pronounce, very close to a nuisance.

“And I understand you want to have it spelled correctly, and I have just what you need.” He followed me to my desk where I opened the drawer and took out an envelope with a recent letter from my parents. I removed the letter and handed him the envelope.

“Please take this. As you can see, my mother writes my American name in printed letters, very clear and precise, so the Korean post office will read it easily. And you may assure the principal that my name is spelled correctly because my mother wrote it!”

“Yes! This is perfect,” he said and he went off to the principal’s office, his problem solved.


I remember the kamsapae. It was a handsome thing made of lacquered persimmon wood with my photo and some florid language commending my work at the school, and all of this in praise that far exceeded anything I had earned.

Late in life I came to understand that material souvenirs carry less significance than the memories they might signify. The memory of that conversation with a friend in those last days at school stands in well for a kamsapae. But in the moment I valued it very much as an object that marked the end of a formative period in my life. In a time when my circumstances called for moving now and then, I wanted to keep this memento safe, so when I next saw my parents — I recall it was a brief visit to Okinawa — I gave it to them to hold for me. But my parents’ life for many years was, in fact, more itinerant than my own. Decades later, I asked my mother for the kamsapae and she couldn’t find it! Somehow she had misplaced it, or a box had been lost in some now distant transit.

Well, the memento is long gone, but the memory of that December morning lingers all this time and now, years later, I write it down, knowing that in the unlikely event that anyone from that time and place fifty years ago ever thinks of me, it’s even more unlikely they’ll remember my true name. No, they’ll remember me as Yang-sŏnsaeng.

One Comment

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  • I enjoyed reading this memory! I have always treasured the name I was given on arrival in Korea in 1976: 강긍식. Then, when I studied Chinese characters in a calligraphy class in my city, I practiced writing it this way: 康根植.

    Many years later when I was traveling to China frequently for business, I also used this name (pronounced a little differently in Mandarin) there, to the amusement of my Chinese counterparts. I also had dealings with Korean government officials for a couple of years in the late 90s and my Korean name came in handy.

    In the Peace Corps, I taught in a teachers’ college, so many of my students had decent English, but my English surname was still difficult for them. They managed to turn it into a joke, though, so Garstang became Gas-tank. Mostly they called me Professor Kang.

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