In my previous post on naming,
an in-process adoptive parent posed a question to me that actually
touched on something I’d written about, then erased, before posting. I
wanted to comment on that piece now that I’ve had some time to think
about it (sorry for the long wait, Jackie).
The question was,
"We would like to keep our child’s Korean name . . . but
if it happens to be a name that really makes them stand out and makes
them more of a target for teasing/harassment – is it worth it? Is it
better to have it as their middle name and let me choose when they are
old enough? Also if the Korean name is given by someone other than the
birthfamily (e.g. agency, foster parents) does it have as much
The short and unsatisfactory answer to this is, It Depends.
When I arrived in the US, I was almost 3 years old and presumably,
I’d been called Jae Ran in Korea for that long (if my birth name truly
was Jae Ran, as everyone I’ve talked to in Korea has indicated). My
adoptive parents changed my name to an American one, yet it was an
unusual name all the same. Although it’s fairly common now to hear
"Kendra" as a first name, back in 1971 in a white, middle class suburb
in Minnesota, it was unheard of. So even though I wasn’t "Jae Ran" at
school, I was still teased about my name. In fact, I hated it.
Having an unusual name stood out for me because it was just another reminder that I was, as my daughter would say, the statistical outlier in my community.
In thinking about it, however, I do not blame my "name" for this problem.
The name issue is essentially a microcosm of the entire act of
adopting a child from another culture and ethnicity. As an adoptive
parent, if you are adopting a child from Korea (or any other country)
you are already committed to bringing a child of color into your home
and community. Keeping the name is admitting (as in, not trying to
cover up) the fact that your child is, yes folks (drumroll please), an Asian child.
If you believe that keeping an ethnic name will target the child for
teasing and harassment, I would wonder what kind of community this
child will be coming into; and what would prevent those kids from
teasing and harrassing the child because of his/her ethnicity anyway.
You will not, I repeat, not be able to prevent kids at school from
teasing and harrassing your child because of their transracial and
international adoptive status; nor will you be able to prevent others
in the community from saying or thinking racist thoughts. Nor will you
be able to prevent that future date rejecting them because their
parents don’t want them dating a person of color or on the flip side,
be able to prevent creepy Asian fetishists from exoticizing your
A second thing that came to mind as I was thinking about names, is
the memory of what it feels like to have people constantly question me
over my name. I have a Korean face. I had an Anglo name. So it was a
constant irritant in my life to talk to people over the phone with my
"American name" and then to meet them in person have them do a double
take once they put my face and name together. This happened every time
I met a new person. The more obnoxious people would laugh at me, or
outright question it (as if I was lying); most people just looked
surprised and/or would be taken aback and try to look like they weren’t
surpised. Often, people would come out and tell me, "I wasn’t expecting
you" because they were looking for a white person.
That is what I mean by how deeply our names are part of a socio-cultural context.
Since I’ve legally changed my name, I find that I get a lot of
questions over how to pronounce my name, but no one is ever surprised
that a Korean person is walking into their meeting or appointment.
It makes me think of all the second generation immigrants whose
parents gave them "American" (but really, just Anglo) first names,
thinking that it will help them assimilate. Then again, they have their
ethnic last names to help avoid the confusion.
For some reason, our society tries awfully hard to "normalize" the
concept of adoption. That is why "we" work to legislate it – saying who
can parent and who can’t, those age, weight and sexual orientation
requirements some countries impose – those are all just a part of
trying to "normalize" adoption.
Why are we trying so hard to pretend it’s the same thing as a
heterosexual, two-parents, biological nuclear family? Folks, it’s not
the same, let’s stop pretending it is.
The only way to "normalize" transracial adoption is to stop
pretending it’s the same as a biological family, and force society to
accept our family structures as they are.
I guess in summary, I think that it’s a personal choice the adoptive
parents will have to be comfortable with; ever since having children,
I’ve made it a point to live in diverse areas and send my kids to
diverse schools. It is no strange thing for them to have kids in their
classrooms named Ngyuen, Pa, Xiong, Khalid, Mariyama, Juan, Xochil,
Circe or LaShondra (all real classmates of my children).
Adoptive parents must be advocates for their children (actually,
shouldn’t all parents?) to help them navigate through the tough times
they may have at school and out in the communities.
Keeping your child’s Korean (or Colombian, Chinese, Ethiopian) name is:
1) honoring the culture they were born into that is a part of their history,
2) helping them identify as a Korean- (or Columbian-, Chinese-, or Ethiopian-) American, which is how society will define them,
3) helping them (and yourselves as parents) see them as part of a diverse world that includes all kinds of family types, and
4) teaching the entire family advocacy skills.
And don’t forget, that every child is going to be different and
there is no right answer to this dilemma. However, just remember that
if you give your child an "Anglo" first name, it will not erase the
fact that s/he is not an "Anglo" child.