Caveat: Carl?

I've commented before how it is possible to know and work with someone for years in Korea without knowing a person's name. This is due to the Korean custom of using job-titles in place of names in workplace situations. Hence, although I know my bosses as "Curt" and "Helen" in English (their "English names" which are really deployed, linguistico-semantically, as just a kind of specialized job-title), I would never, ever use their Korean names if speaking to them in Korean – I'd address them or refer to them exclusively by their titles: 원장님 and 부원장님 [won-jang-nim and bu-won-jang-nim, roughly "honored director" and "honored vice-director"]. Likewise, most of my coworkers have "English names" which are used as titles, often with an honorific suffix -샘 [saem = teacher] attached, e.g. Danny-saem or Gina-saem, and I don't know their Korean names (although in their cases, I know where to look to find out, should I need to know). But these English name/titles are only used for those who do actual teaching. For those coworkers who have other, non-teacher roles, they have job-titles in the the standard Korean. Thus, for example, there is 실장님 [sil-jang-nim = honored front-desk worker, more literally "section chief"] or 과장님 [gwa-jang-nim = honored assistant, more literally "department head"]. When one translates the terms, they seem inflated and unnatural, but they are truly natural and automatic in Korean discourse.

We got a new March class schedule today, and on it were the little two-letter abbreviations for the various teachers. I am "JW," Curt is "Ct," etc. There was an unfamiliar abbreviation: "Ca."

"Who is Ca?" I asked – the mysterious Ca was down for a few of what we call "online" classes – where kids complete work in the computer lab using the contracted online provider of web-based English practice exercises. It turned out Ca was the gwa-jang-nim – the assistant in charge of student transportation (the bus schedule) as well as a kind of jack-of-all-trades for the hagwon. "But what is 'Ca'?" I asked. "That's his English name," it was explained.

"What's his English name?"

Ken and I speculated: Calvin? We couldn't think of many English names that could be abbreviated "Ca." Finally, I asked the gwa-jang-nim directly: Carl. That's his English name. Because he's stepping into a teaching role, supervising the kids in the computer lab, suddenly he gets an English name, after knowing him for 2 years. Carl-saem.

It's weird. And then Ken and Gina and I reflected that we still had no idea what his Korean name was. He's always been only gwa-jang-nim.

Back to Top