13 August 2008

Some genealogy work

One dirty secret that I have is that I am a dual citizen. The South Koreans consider me their national due to my birth in Seoul. Although I've been a naturalized American for a long time, and South Korea does not recognize dual citizenship, the naturalization was never properly reported to the Seoul government, so my government records are still alive - sort of. When I go to my retreat in Seoul, I will need to visit vital records offices to gather certified copies of my records, then bring them back to Los Angeles to file them, alongside my US naturalization papers, with the Korean consulate, to close the records out. (The vital records cannot be obtained at the consulate.) Not only am I eager to cut ties to the South Korean government (especially considering how much I don't like the new right-wing government), but if I ever need to do something crazy - like extend my retreat to two years - closing out my old records is a prerequisite.

In doing the preparatory research necessary to request the records, I found out some interesting facts about all my four grandparents (who are all deceased, as of 2005), and I'll share them.

A typical Korean name has one Chinese letter for family name (there are fewer than 300 possible, with half of the population being Kim, Lee, or Park, and the top 20 names accounting for 80-90% of the population), followed by two Chinese letters for given name. Exceptions do exist - some family names have two characters, some given names only one, a few given names purely Korean - but none apply to my grandparents. In addition, each family name also has a strain, in the form of the name of a city or county the head ancestor was born in (Andong Kim, Gyeongju Kim, Gimhae Kim, etc). Different strains are considered different families altogether, even if they have the same family name. The strain is normally not included in a person's name, but shows up on legal records.

My paternal grandfather was an Icheon Seo family member. (I spell the name So per the US government guidelines, but the South Korean government prefers to spell it Seo, which I will follow for the purposes of this discussion.) Icheon is a famous pottery region 50 miles southeast of Seoul, and that's where my head ancestor was supposedly born. The most famous Icheon Seo is General Seo Hui, who negotiated peace with the Khitans to the north of the Korean peninsula almost a millennium ago. I know very little of my grandfather, except that he was a playboy with lots of illegitimate children.

My paternal grandmother was a Jeonju Kim, a very distinguished family. The most famous Jeonju Kims are the North Korean Communist leadership - Kim Jong-Il and his deceased father Kim Il-Sung - making them my distant relatives. My grandmother studied in Shanghai, and was considered a very progressive, advanced woman for her time.

My maternal grandfather was a Shinan Ju. New family names and strains are often created through naturalization, and Shinan Ju, tracing back to a certain General Zhu fleeing China and arriving in the southwest coastal areas of Korea, is a perfect example. Korea is a very homogeneous and xenophobic society, so General Zhu had no choice but to start his own Korean family line and lose all hints of Chineseness. But he does allow me to claim some Chinese ancestry, and I consider Shinan Jus to be Chinese people completely assimilated into Korean society (even though they themselves identify as pure Koreans). My grandfather was very hot-headed and conservative, and had a rough edge due to his work in the construction industry.

My maternal grandmother was a Kang, and I have no idea what her strain was, but it's of little consequence as all Kangs are supposedly of one strain. She never learned how to read, but she had extremely high intelligence, which many of my cousins have inherited.

Korea's primitive Confucian family laws, recently repealed, demanded that everyone follow the birth father's family name and strain for life; no changes were allowed even in cases of marriage or adoption. The old laws also prohibited marriage between people with same surnames - a problem if you're a Kim or some other common name. The new laws do allow changing names for adoption purposes, marriage between same surnames, and following the mother's family name and strain upon prior agreement between the father and the mother. The last item would've been quite appropriate for me, actually; I've had much better ties to the Shinan Ju family than to the Icheon Seo family, my appearance is described as that of a Jeonju Kim (even though I doubt my grandmother ever wore miniskirt suits), and my brain is described as that of a Kang.

Now the work will be to actually obtain the relevant government vital records for all people involved - me, my parents, and my grandparents - so that the nationality renunciation process can go forward. The records themselves are an interesting topic, and have changed their structure and format dramatically upon the repeal of the primitive Confucian family laws, but I will save that discussion for when I am actually in possession of those records.