What’s in a name? Frankly, I didn’t really know the answer to that question until 2008 while I was working as a consultant in South Korea.
The experience in South Korea fundamentally changed my life, for better and for worse, the effects of which still linger to this day. Thinking that 8-hour work days were insufferably long and that sleep was for the weak were just some of the misguided ideas I had before I started working for an online game development company on an Asian peninsula in a de jure state of war.
Prior to doing a second tour in Korea, I had been in living in Vancouver, working for a company I loved (eBay) trying to find my way in the world. Trouble was, despite having everything go right, I still wanted something more meaningful. An opportunity had come up in Korea, and before long, I was on a plane making my way to the “Hermit Kingdom”.
My job would involve a number of things; consulting, translating, educating, mentoring and leadership. There would be no training session, no formal introduction to the role I was stepping into. There was no time for me to get a good grasp of what working for a Korean company would mean – I was, for lack of better words, thrown into a foreign fire, needing to pick things up on the fly. The only thing I had going for me was an open door to my boss’ office – the company’s CEO.
In fact, my boss took me under his wing, so to speak. He may have been under the impression that I would be lonely, that the transition into an unfamiliar country would be an overwhelming experience for me. It’s obvious he didn’t know me all that well, but in the end, it’s the thought that counts.
He introduced me to his family, to his employees, his friends and connections. I was proud to have considered myself “on the inside” of many discussions about the company and the direction to be taken. In the office, I was the only person allowed to tell him he was wrong about something, though this power was not abused and was exercised in private. On the weekends, I’d play hockey with his son on the streets of Seoul and have dinner with his family.
It wasn’t until a few months after my arrival did my boss have a solid understanding of my appreciation for and tolerance of alcohol, specifically, soju, a vodka-type Korean drink. I became legendary around the office and an honourary member of my boss’ family.
One day, while discussing English names with my boss’ two sons, it became apparent to me that there should be some meaning in a given name. Although I’m not entirely sure how my parents came to call me Patrick, I’m certain that it had something to do with the fact that my father’s name was Pierre, and that Patrick was the best name they could come up with that started with “P”.
My boss’ family name was “Cho”, which could be confused in Korean with the verb “to give”. This would play an important role in the selection of names.
In thinking about my boss’ kids, aged 13 and 10 at the time, I thought a bit about their personalities. The youngest was a savvy, business-oriented mind who picked up English during a 6-week stay in London, Ontario. He loved money, and he understood the value of working for it. He once asked me if there was anything I hated doing. I told him I was not a fan of doing laundry. For the next ten months, he did my laundry every week for a starting wage of five dollars a week. He would later end up shining my shoes every Sunday night for an extra three dollars a week. So when he asked me for an English name, I told him he should call himself Don. “Don”, when pronounced in Korean, is homonymous with the Korean word for money. In short:
Don Cho = “give me money”
The oldest son was much simpler to name. He was a child with a physical disability but had a gifted mind. He could lecture me on Korea’s 5000-year history and did everything he could to coerce me into playing chess with him, where he would handily beat me. But more than anything, he loved to eat. He was fit, but could eat a horse if he wanted to and go back for seconds. Much to his parents’ delight and sense of humour, I decided to call him Bob. Bob sounds a lot like “bap” when speaking Korean, so the humour lies herein:
Bob Cho = “give me food” or “give me rice”
As for me, I let the kids give me a Korean name, and with the family’s blessing, used the name “Cho” as my Korean family name. Bob and Don wasted no time in selecting my name: Somaek Cho.
Somaek is a slang Korean term which refers to an alcoholic drink in which beer is mixed with a shot of soju. “So” for “soju”; “maek” for “maekju”, which is the Korean word for “beer”.
There were people who were not happy with my new Korean name, thinking that it made me out to seem like a bad guy – an academic, know-it-all drunk who liked the more frivolous things in life. I guess those people were blinded to the truth. I liked the name because it makes no apologies for who I am and does not conceal what others may see as some of my flaws.
The Korean name I was given is perhaps one of the best gifts anyone has given to me because it immediately gives others some insight into who I am; funny, witty, smart, adventurous and in tune with the culture. Some will dismiss the name Somaek Cho as a good attempt at an icebreaker; I personally think it was a thoughtful gesture from a couple of Korean kids.