The Name Game

In Hayao Miyazaki’s movie, Spirited Away,
ten-year old Chihiro finds herself trapped in a spirit world. In order
to rescue her parents and return to the human world, Chihiro must work
at a bathhouse run by a witch named Yu-Baaba. One of the ways Yu-Baaba
enslaves Chihiro is by taking away her name; hence she is re-named
"Sen" and one of her challenges is to remember her original name. If
she forgets that she is “Chihiro,” she will lose her chance forever to
return to the human world.

Anthroponomastics, from the Greek anthropos “man” and onuma
“name” is the study of human names. Naming is an intentional practice
of claiming. Humans name things that have emotional importance in their
lives; it is a way to inform others that there is a historical or
significant relationship between the person and the named object. For
example, we name our domesticated pets, but farmers do not name the
animals they intend to slaughter for meat; musicians name their
guitars, men often name their cars and it is a common literary device
to portray unsympathetic characters as either nameless individuals or
through nicknames or euphemisms.

Names give people an identity; names are an expression of cultural identity deeply imbedded in sociocultural contexts.

Some cultures
do not pre-determine names for infant children; instead, they are named
at ceremonies, at which time either the parent or community elder names
the child. Naming ceremonies are extrememly important to these cultures
because the belief is that a person cannot exist without a name.

As Miyazaki explained the significance of Yu-baaba’s practice of
re-naming her prisoners, “the act of depriving (a person) of one’s name
is not just changing how one (person) calls the other,” he said, “it is
a way to rule the other (person) completely.”

Of course, this makes me think of the practice we have in adoption
of re-naming children. Just like Chihiro, I had a name that I forgot
and for thirty years I lived as an outsider. Only when I remembered and
reclaimed my name was I able to stand proudly and through my name,
reconcile my place in the world.

In my 37 years on this earth, I have had four names; four times I’ve
been claimed by someone, four identities. These identites spread over
two countries, two nationalities, three families and assigned roles of
daughter, sister, wife and mother.

My first name was most likely given to me by my birth family. When I
was found at the age of 14 months old, in a box on the steps of Daegu
City Hall on a cold, February evening, inside my quilted jacket was a
note with no explanation. The note did, however, include my name and
birthdate. For almost three years, I was a daughter of South Korea.

Then, in late July of 1971, I arrived in Minnesota by an enormous,
metal stork and re-born as the child of D.B. and K.B. At three years
old, I was claimed as a B. and who I was, the child before, was
summarily erased with the swipe of "Wite-Out" on my new "birth
certificate." My new name signified that I was now claimed as part of
the B. family. Because my adoptive parents did not keep my any part of
Korean name, we all forgot who I once was. Like Chihiro, I had embodied
"Sen" for so long, I’d begun to forget who I was. For seventeen years,
I was my adoptive parents daughter.

When I was twenty, I got married. I had toyed around with many
different ideas for my married name. As a feminist, I decided not take
my husband’s surname. We discussed all the possibilities – I could keep
my maiden name, I could hyphenate, we both could hyphenate. Never once
did it even occur to me to incorporate my Korean name. In the end, I
decided to tack on John’s surname with a hyphen. I was hyphenated for
almost fifteen years.

In 2004, I went to South Korea for the second time since my
adoption. I was 34 years old and had been thinking about changing my
name back to the one on that little note pinned to the inside of my
jacket. My friends, who travelled with me, decided to call me by my
Korean name. After almost three weeks of hearing it everyday, it became
part of me, integrated.

Returning home, I felt very confused as my Korean friends continued
to call me Jae Ran and everyone else called me by my American name.
John thought taking back my Korean name was a positive thing and when I
returned to school a few weeks later, I informed all my classmates and
professors that I had changed my name.

Two weeks before my 35th birthday, I walked out of the Hennepin
County courthouse as Jae Ran Kim. I had come full circle. In a way, I
was going back to the beginning.

Only this time, I was claiming myself.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

8 thoughts

  1. And many immigrant Korean Americans have an “American” name and Korean name. My brothers go by their American names – but it seems strange to me even though I was always considered the most Americanized by my family. I am the only who’s chosen to go by my Korean name. A name does have impact on one’s identity.

  2. Wow, this is powerful. I just found your blog today. I’m a AP and you’ve just completely confirmed the decision my spouse and I made not to change my 4 year old son-to-be’s name. Well, we’ll change his middle and last name, but we’re keeping his first name. It doesn’t seem fair to do anything else, does it?

  3. Reading this for the first time. OMG. This reminds of something that happened to me when I was in kindergarten. My mom gave me the option of changing my name to Christine. My response? “But I’m not Christine I’m [H]!” Thus ended the first episode of Assimilation 101 in my life.

  4. I can’t correctly pronounce my Korean name. =( Even after practice. I could never call myself something I cannot pronounce; in fact I rarely tell people what it is because I don’t want to admit that I can’t say my own name!

  5. In theory, keeping the birth name is our first choice, but what if the children you are adopting carry names of biological family members who have prison records, gang affiliation and have tried to abduct them in the past? Honestly, we fear future attempts! We plan to discuss the name change with the older child and allow him to choose his new name(s) with the help of a therapist. We will suggest our favorite Biblical name that happens to be similar to the nickname he already goes by, but it will ultimately be his decision. Sad as it is, we just can’t endanger our family by keeping their birth names.

  6. When I signed up my daughter for Mandarin lessons, I received a message from the teacher: what is your daughter’s Chinese name? I thought to myself, she does not have a Chinese name. It’s no longer her name. This stayed with me for a few days. I kept on rehashing it in my mind. I did not know what to do. Then I started to come around and think what’s wrong with using the name that was given to her at the Social Welfare Institute? Why am I thinking that it is no longer her name? I realised that her Chinese name will always be her name. It’s her history. Why did I think it was no longer hers? While I had kept a part of her name and incorporated it in her new Canadian name, I felt hey! I’m cool, I’m progressive. I am thankful to have gone through this “awakening” very early on, and thanks to my daughter’s Mandarin teacher. Now I feel that her Chinese name is part of her identity.

  7. We chose to change our adopted (older) children’s first names but keep their Ethiopian names as middle names. I struggled with this until the moment I met their birth mother and discovered what my youngest daughter’s name meant. I will be honest with my daughter, she will always have her Ethiopian name as a middle name, but I do not want to call her by a name that I know means something horrible.

  8. Names are a tricky. It’s an incredibly personal decision to change them or keep them. And in the end they should only make sense to the person they affect the most: the adoptee.
    I’ve always been intrigued and curious about my Korean name, but I’m most comfortable with where it is right now. My Korean family name is my middle name. I have the same first and last name as my Grandfather and my Uncle on my dad’s side. And we all share the same middle initial. I think it’s fair to say that it was a pretty stong statement by my parents.
    I just discovered your blog today and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read so far. You’re an amazing writer. I’m glad you’re happy with your name whatever it may be.

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