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What's in a Name?

Sitting in a restaurant in Chicago in the middle of the summer, my husband jotted down names on a scrap piece of paper. We just formally accepted the referral of our oldest son for adoption from Korea and part of the paperwork required us to list any new name we would give him. Excited, overwhelmed, and emotional, we went back and forth, writing all the permutations of this complicated algorithm down. First name. Middle name. Last name. American name. Korean name. Innumerable ways to define, re-define, or let stand who he is and who he might become.

My adoptive parents chose an entirely American name for me, wiping away the Korean name they thought my birth mother gave me, but really was bestowed by an anonymous social worker at the adoption agency. As an anonymous baby, I was up for grabs, just like my name. To me, my name is a device of convenience, like the sounds we use to label love and loss, necessary but wholly inadequate.

Naming a child is an entirely parent-centric act. It is an act of ownership, the giving of the patriarchal family name, claiming that child as part of the clan. The first and middle names are often aspirational, a declaration of hope imprinted onto the blank slate of a child.

For adoptees, though, we are not a blank slate and renaming us often erases our connection to our first family and the messages implicit in our first names. For transracial adoptees, there is the added layer that the Western names given to us to help us assimilate, to make us part of this new country, often leave us feeling even more different, the name not matching our face, the burden of explanation resting on us.

When the time came to turn in the form with our son's new name, we decided on an American first name to honor a family member, his Korean name as his middle name, and my husband’s last name as his surname. A name of compromise. We repeated this pattern with our second adopted son and our biological daughter, symmetry in their names, if not in their experiences.

While we waited for our children’s adoptions to be completed, we only used their Korean names. Once they joined our family, it took months for us to try out their American names. Each of our sons would proudly declare his Korean name and why wouldn’t he? It was the name that his birth mother gave him, the name he had been called for over three years, the name that meant comfort, safety, and home. The decision to change their names no longer made sense once they stood before us, but I had a bundle of legal documents with these new names on them, including their citizenship papers, and it felt insurmountable as new parents to change them.

Slowly, we started integrating both names into their worlds, and once each child started pre-school the shift to their American names happened without us realizing it. My children learned quickly that if they told people their Korean names, that it would require several attempts, the syllables warbled and the sounds adulterated, as if a name could be a foreign language. They offered their American name instead and it was consumed and digested with ease, a lesson in assimilation at the age of four. Now, years later, I wonder what would it have taken for me to insist on people pronouncing their Korean names correctly and what would it have cost them to hear me do that?

Currently, both our boys prefer their American name in public spaces, but respond happily to either name in our home or with our Koreans. Whenever it comes up, I tell them they can be called whatever they want and change it if they ever want. It’s the best I can do now, the shift already completed, their Korean-ness compromised for the comfort and convenience of their American-ness. Parenting remains incredibly fraught for me, the decisions I make have so much power, and I inevitably misstep with the weight of it. Yet, until my children can pick up the strings of their own life, it is on me to do the best I can, be prepared to apologize and make amends when I mess up, and to support them in whatever direction they go.

Other Related Perspectives:

Three Sides to Every Adoption: Naming a Newborn (YouTube)- A conversation with a birth mother, adoptee and adoptive parent


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