The Name Game: Part 3 – Lessons from Down Under

I am completely astounded at how much traffic I have received since
I wrote about naming. I was only putting down my thoughts about my own
process, because a friend of mine had recently decided to change her
name back to her Korean name too. When I was going through the "should
I – shouldn’t I" stage, I was very fortunate that I had friends who had
done it already, and they really supported my decision and helped me
with the difficult and rewarding transition.

When I was writing The Name Game: Part 2,
I was researching like crazy to find information on something I’d heard
but couldn’t confirm – that Australia requires parents to keep their
adopted children’s names. I searched and searched and could not find
the information. But, thanks to a reader who sent me the following
information, I’d like to pass on to you how this issue of naming is
approached in Australia.

I was pleased to see that many of the points my TRA friends and I
make about naming are the same answers that this Australian law makes
as well.

To change a child’s name requires
the services of a Solicitor and ‘special circumstances’ need to be
outlined. In this sense the government department in Australia who
manage Intercountry Adoption have published the following statement:

DoCS (Department of Community Services) Rationale supporting retention of the name of a child.

Each person’s identity is made up of a number of components; their
name is a core part of their identity. Children recognise their name
from about 4 or 5 months of age. A child’s name helps them to identify
her/himself as unique and separate from all other children- a powerful
factor in the development of a “sense of self”.

In the case of intercountry adoptees, the child’s name usually
reflects their race and cultural identity, and is one of the few
remaining links they have with their birth country.

The Adoption 2000 (the Act) proclaimed this year states in the
“Objects and adoption principles’’ –“The child’s given name or names,
identity, language and cultural and religious ties should, as far as
possible, be identified and preserved.” Section 101 (5) of the Act
upholds this principle of the importance of retaining a child’s name.

The New South Wales Law Reform Commission (LRC) outlined in Report
81 Review of the Adoption of Children Act 1965 (NSW) the rationale
behind their recommendation to retain birth names of adopted children.
The report cited Australia’s undertaking in the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child to “respect the right of the
child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and
family relations”.

The LRC also noted “The intercountry adoptee endures enormous change
and dislocation in the process of being adopted overseas. The child is
uprooted from all that is familiar, including relationships and
language. The child’s name is one of the few remaining links with his
or her birth culture. More importantly, though, the child’s name is an
integral part of his or her identity”.

Keeping a child’s name is a sign of respect to the birth family and
to the overseas country from which the child is adopted and allows the
child’s racial and cultural identity to be valued and preserved.

Most children arriving from overseas know their name-even young babies respond to their name. This is the most compelling reason to keep this name.

Some reasons given to explain why parents want to change their child’s name:

* They wish to give the child a name to make them part of their family and give them the context of their Australian family.
While this is a reasonable desire, every adopted child gets the surname
of their Australian family so the family is giving their name to their

*They feel changing an intercountry adoptee’s
name to an Anglo name makes it easier for the child and they say other
migrants coming to Australia do the same.

It is
understandable that a parent wants to protect their child from
difficulties. Still a migrant retains their surname so their
cultural/racial heritage can be identified. So for example most people
would realise that “a Peter Wong” is Chinese by his surname. The child
lives with their parents/family members and maintains their native
language and cultural/religious practices. An intercountry adoptee
whose forename is changed to an Anglo one loses this part of their
cultural/racial identity that would have been preserved if their
forename were kept.

*They feel because they changed their first child’s name, they need to do the same for their second.
Again this is a reasonable concern but adoption practice changes over
time and what was common practice when one child was placed with
adoptive parents can change by the time the next child is placed. We
find that generally parents are usually more than able to deal with
differences in practice over time, and to explain them appropriately to
their children.

It is in the above context that the Department supports retention of
names of non-citizen children and cannot support a change of name
unless there are exceptional circumstances. We sincerely believe it is
in the best interests of these children for them to retain their names.
These children do gain by being placed in a loving Australian adoptive
family but we must remember they do lose through adoption as well and the more we can reduce this loss the better for them.

From Dept of Community Services (Australia) – 2003

In the Shadow of My Family Tree

Originally published in Korean Quarterly, Spring 2004 Vol 7, No. 3

In the Shadow of My Family Tree

It all began with Martha Stewart. Yes, the same domestic diva whose recent decorating consisted of contemplating paint swatches for a jail cell; a few years back, I was taken with an issue of her eponymous self-titled magazine. On the front cover was a gorgeous, original rendering of a family tree. Inside the issue were many more examples, some using tree branches and cut paper leaves, others with photographs and calligraphy. I have never been daunted by a Martha Stewart project before, but as much as I wanted to, this was one I knew would never be attempted.

Humans are obsessed with their personal histories. What pride to trace your forefathers to the Mayflower or a past president or a king or queen. Witness the naming of sons after fathers (my husband is the third generation John in his family). Family names are important – I named our son Tate after my maternal grandparents, the same ones who claim descendency from Oliver Wolcott, who penned his signature on the Declaration of Independence. There is a whole industry surrounding Genealogy; web sites to search, books on compiling the data, magazines for the home anthropologist on the most beautiful and elegant method of presentation. More than mere surnames or the family schnoz, we desire to pass on to the next generation family culture, mythology, implied inherited virtues, and a historical context in which to frame the family’s journey.

I am adopted. I am trans-racially and trans-culturally adopted. What sounds exotic and mysterious to others is just a plain old fact to me. I was abandoned, found, placed in an orphanage and adopted a few years later. I have a life story, it’s just that no one knows what it is. I have spent periods of my life speculating; was I the product of a young unmarried birthmother, or the youngest in a poverty-stricken family forced to abandon me because they could not afford one more mouth to feed, or did my mother die giving birth to me? What I do know is that I was born sometime in 1968 in South Korea. That part of my life story is shared by the thousands of other Koreans adopted as children over the past fifty years.

I don’t recall having much issue with my lack of personal history until I had my first child. There were other issues to be sure. I was living and calling the people who cared for me my family, assuming their identities while ignoring mine. My parents say that when I first came to the U.S. I was very negative towards anything Korean, especially if someone spoke Korean to me. That is probably why they never dealt with my cultural heritage in any way – perhaps they took their cues from a scared and lonely three year old who had spent more than two thirds of her life in an orphanage and just wanted a permanent place to consider home. I was considered an American, period. I didn’t attend Korean culture camps, eat Korean food, attend a Korean church or learn to read, write or speak Korean. I never complained about this, even though as I reached my teen years it was something I thought about daily. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful at being given an opportunity to achieve the American dream.

Personal history only became a big deal for me when I became pregnant with my daughter. At my first prenatal check I had to fill out a standard medical history chart. Until my pregnancy I’d never had a reason to have regular medical care. Was there heart disease or breast cancer or diabetes in my family? Had I had chicken pox or German measles? I knew nothing of my personal medical history from birth to 3 years. As my belly grew so did the frequency of family history issues. At my baby shower I received a baby book and on the second page, there it was – two solid pages of family history waiting for my pen to fill in the blanks. I filled in John’s side of the family and my adoptive parents side.

But what is missing says more to me than anything else – somewhere out there is the rest of my history, the family who will never have their names documented in my genealogy because I will never know them. When I was a teenage I often had dreams about bumping into my twin sister in the midst of a huge crowd of people. I didn’t have a desire to actively find my biological family back then, but I was always dreaming about running into them at the local Dairy Queen or while walking around the lake. In my dreams, I always knew instinctively know they were my biological sister or brother or mother or father, even though I don’t remember being able to see their faces. Somehow I just knew.

My Korean name is Kim Jae Ran. That was the extent I knew about myself until a few years ago when my mother gave me a file she had found while cleaning out some boxes. Inside contained the sum of my whole life Before Adoption – mostly developmental reports from the orphanage and letters from local politicians helping speed the adoption process along.

Instead of first steps and first words, my files consists of “Jae Ran needs a lot more affections for her dark moods”, “Seldom gets smile as she is so spiritless” and “likes to play with children. Giggles and plays well.” My early childhood is a series of progress reports. How strange it was to read what someone thought of me as a baby. I often wonder what it was like for my birth mother or family to give me up. They wanted me to be safe so they abandoned me close to the local police. I wondered if they ever thought of me. When both of my children passed the age I was when I’d been abandoned I had a minor soul shaking. It was incomprehensible to me to have held on to my babies for fourteen months, then think about abandoning them.

My daughter Lucie was born in the image of her dad. From the beginning I was obsessed with who she looked like. Did she have my eyes? She had my nose. Her face shape and hair color were definitely not like mine. She had her dad’s skin color, eyebrows and curly hair. I assumed she would have the shock of thick, coarse inky black hair typical of Asians, not the fine, curly light brown hair from her paternal side of the family. All my friends and family members said it too; she looks just like her daddy.

This upset me. I’d spent my whole life standing out, the only dark head in family photographs. I wanted my children to at least resemble me. But as my kids grow, I begin to see myself more and more in them. I see my nose, and my smile too. I was going through some photos recently when I found one that I couldn’t believe was me, it looked exactly like my son.

My family tree is starting to fill up under me; the names of my children are the first small sprouts of new growth. I’ve included my adoptive family’s history for the baby books because after all, they are the ones who have been the known part of my kids lives.

However there are spiritual blanks where the Kim family’s names should be. I see the personal history and family I don’t know as the shadow of my family tree – not the big leafy one represented by my adoptive family and their history, but as the strong silent presence fluttering behind it. My adoptive family is the one who guided and raised me, shaping my character; but my biological family is my instinct.

I hope that somewhere on the other side of the world is the family whose family tree has a shadow space on a branch where my name should be.