What’s in a name?

January 5, 2008 at 1:02 pm 23 comments

I have for some time now, been considering a name change. It’s not that I don’t like my name, it’s just that it barely suits me, I am told. It’s an unexpected white, Jewish, name that clashes with my appearance. Even my photo ID is an oxymoron to many people. My birth name makes more sense to your average Joe Schmoe. I’m told that my birth name was given to me by my birth mother (some adoptees received their names – well the first set of names – from adoption agency personnel). I’ve grown to like my birth name, but it wasn’t always so. These days, my birth name makes more sense for me, although I have no idea what my name means – because I have heard so many different translations. So, it’s not the meaning really — it’s just an asian name for an asian face.

This is what I hate: white names with “asian influences.” These names are plays on ENGLISH words for items popularly found in Asia. Examples: Jade, Ryce, India, Asia, Lily, Jasmine…. etc. What makes me even more upset than an asian child with these names are asian adoptees with these names. I know, I know… it’s none of my business what someone wants to name their child. To me, it just feels like this…

When I was a child, my parents – after a few months of begging from yours truly – bought me a cute little long haired kitty. She was round and sweet and fluffy. Guess what I named her? Fluffy Kitty. Yes, that was her full name. I was 5 and it was a suitable name, in my five year old mind – because when I looked at that sweet little kitty that I wanted to own so badly that was all I saw in her – Fluffy Kitty. The kitty grew and soon was referred to simply as “Fluffy.” She was a good cat, best we ever had. She was my cat and I was her owner. I’d even say that I loved her.

“Well, we wanted to honor her birth culture,” they say. Really? I mean are you really saying that with a straight face? Because last time I was in Korea, I never met ANYONE named Asia or Asya or Aysa or Aysah or Jade or Tofu or Kimchi or Ryce or Ying Yang or Ping Pong or Sesame Chicken…. Man, you really did your research on your child’s “culture” before you adopted. Replacing her culturally appropriate name with a fun, whimsical name suitable for a China Doll owned by a five year old. Ugh!

Back to my name. My name reflects my adopted identity and I am not looking to erase my adopted identity really. It comes with a sweet story. My parents planned to name me “Anna” after my mother’s grandmother. When they saw my name was written on the paperwork as “Ji-Hoea” (in English) they asked where it came from. The social worker explained it was from my first mother, so they opened their baby name book and looked for a similar name that they could pronounce. “Let’s be real,” they probably said. “We have no idea how to say that mumble jumbled name and we will never learn. No one in our world can say that name. So everywhere the poor girl goes people will butcher her name. (Because she will never live in the other half of the world – the world we are removing her from!)”

Recently, I downloaded an interview on NPR of a father who adopted two girls from China. They (father and his wife) decided to keep the girls’ first names – named by the adoption personnel. He describes the reason fairly simply. Their first daughter from China was a toddler at adoption and knew her name. They didn’t want to take away EVERYTHING she knew and upon hearing the name, they felt it suited her. The second child was much younger at adoption and didn’t know her name, but they still grew to fancy her first set of Chinese names and felt that they were appropriate for their daughter. I was listening with such disbelief. These ideas were so unusual to me, bizarre even.

I’m not sure what I would do if I were a white parent adopting from Asia. It’s kind of this burden that your child’s life started (and maybe even had several months or years) before you entered it. He/She has a personality, a name, and many experiences/memories that you don’t yet know or possibly will never know of. Do you erase and start over? Do you sweep it under the rug? Do you write it down in a pretty journal for later? Do you make her completely yours? Do you add her to your family as she is? Do you mix the two worlds — keep the name as the middle name (which she will never hear – only on special occasions)? Put that name, once first, second or third or fourth? I don’t know really. I wouldn’t know what to do or what would feel right. And then, feel right to who? You, her, or the Joe Schmoes?

Entry filed under: Adoption.

새해 복 많이 받아라!! Tick, tick, tick…

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Scott Ocheltree  |  January 5, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    My wife and I have 4 sons, the youngest two are adopted from China. Although both our Chinese sons were toddlers when we adopted them, we felt it was important to give them names. I believe a child’s name is the first, and one of the most important, gifts a parent gives to a child, and we are our children’s parents. Not their first parents, or only parents, but due to the circumstances of their abandonment and the Chinese system, we will most likely be the only parents they ever know.

    We kept their original Chinese names (orphanage names) as their middle names, and we still use them as nicknames, but they aren’t common sounding names for North Americans, and I think they would be difficult for American boys to grow up with – and my sons are American now.

    Our 3rd son’s original name is Hui (pronounced Hway) Every Caucasian I know who has tried pronouncing it from seeing it on paper says “Hoo-ey”. Even after correcting them repeatedly they have trouble getting it right. Our fourth son’s name is Yu Heng, pronounced “You Hung”, I love the meaning of this name (eternal rain) and have been told by native Chinese speakers it is a beautiful name, but I think it would be challenging (in a “Boy Named Sue” way) to grow up with here.

    We chose to give them both traditional Chinese boy names, but chose ones we liked and felt were easier on western ears and tongues. We originally planned on hyphenating our 3rd son’s new name with his original name, since they were both single character names. However, when we were in China to adopt him, one of our guides laughed when she heard the name. She told us that while it was different characters, it was pronounced the same as Mao Tse Tung’s first wife’s name. That was when we learned the challenges of joining Chinese characters to form a name. We changed his first name to a single character, and chose a single character name for our 4th son as well.

    Many people change their names or choose different names during their lives for different reasons. My parents gave my brother the name “Mark’ and wanted to give him David as a middle name, but my mother didn’t like the rhythm of Mark David, so they named him David Mark, but always called him Mark. As an adult he often conducts business as David. His daughter’s name is KylaraJane Hope. She was always called Hope as a young child, but now uses KylaraJane. She has used other names at times as well.

    If I were you, I would be frustrated by not knowing the exact translation of your Korean name. I don’t know as much about that language as the little I know of Chinese, but the information we received about our adopted sons had their names written in Chinese characters, so it was very easy to get exact translations as to the meanings of their names. I would think you would be able to get the Korean characters of your name either from your parents records or from the Korean agency/home (?) you were adopted through.

    As disturbing as names like Jade or Asya seem for adopted Asian girls, many parents of biological children burden them with even more horrid names. One of my favorite books of baby names is one called “Beyond Jennifer and Jason” which instead of simply providing long alphabetical lists, grouped names by concepts and had lists titled “Names That Are Too Much To Live Up To” and “Names That Aren’t Enough To Live Up To”. The latter included names like Bunny and Candy. I remember meeting a VERY young couple at a park a couple years ago who had a small toddler with them. Their child and ours began playing together so we introduced ourselves to one another. Their son’s name was Anakin. I asked how old he was, and sure enough he was born around the time the last Star Wars movie premiered! So there are worse names out there.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but naming all four of our sons was something we thought quite a bit about.

  • 2. molly w  |  January 5, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    We’re hoping to adopt from Taiwan and I, too, hate the Asia/Jade/Pearl/whatever names for adoptees from China. They remind me of the pseudonyms used by (imposed on?) Asian-American adult film actresses, and whenever I run across adoptive parents planning to use those names, I think, “Do you *want* her to be a pr0n star when she grows up?”

    A lot of adults in Taiwan use English names professionally (my sister-in-law is Taiwanese, lives in Taipei, and goes by Natalie), so I feel like there’s some precedent for giving our child an American name — but we plan to keep his/her birth name as a middle name, so s/he can always start using it later on if the double takes (“Wait, *you’re* John Smith?”) get too frustrating.

    You’re right, though, there’s no ideal solution. It’s yet another indignity international adoption imposes on kids.

  • 3. LH  |  January 5, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    We kept our daughter’s first name as her middle, but honestly, even at 5 years old, if we tried to call her by her Chinese name, she wouldn’t go for it. I know for a fact that she would not like it. I also would worry about when she’s older – say middle school. I can just see it now: all the dumass and mean kids going around chanting her Chinese name in a mean-spirited way (I’m a middle school teacher, I know what they’re capable of!) My daughter is the only Asian in a family full of white people – I think she has enough on her plate to deal with.

    On the other hand, one of my daughter’s closest friends prefers being called by her Chinese name. Another girl I know, adopted from China at age 12, gave herself a western name upon arriving in the states.

    Honestly, it’s a complicated matter for both the adoptee and the AP.

  • 4. Cavatica  |  January 5, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    We gave our Chinese daughter an American name and an easy to say Chinese middle name. We also use the name and nickname given to her by the orphanage in China – so does her day care! My husband and I had been given Chinese names by our Chinese teacher and when we learned our daughter’s Chinese surname we changed ours to that. Now our Chinese and American surnames match. I’m proud of all our names and she can choose what she likes as she grows or in different situations as they suit. I hope she’ll find pride in her many names, as I do in my many names.

  • 5. Deb  |  January 7, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Naming is such a difficult topic. I want to think that parents, both adoptive and biological, make this decision carefully, but the evidence certainly argues otherwise, doesn’t it? As the examples listed so beautifully demonstrate.

    I think it is particularly difficult for internationally adopted children, who have so many other factors that play into their identity and the way they interact with and are perceived by the world around them. The needs of the 20+ year old woman are different from the needs of the 3 year old, the 10 year old, the 40 year old. How do you find one name to fit all the needs of a lifetime?

    The fact that your first mother gave you a name, would seem to me to be incredibly precious. And so is the story behind your adoptive name. Ultimately, only the now-grown child can decide what the “best” name is, or how to incorporate all the naming stories into your current reality.

  • 6. Sandra Mae aka. Kim Mee Sun  |  January 7, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    I also believe that it is such an individualized decision based on the circumstances, child and family……my family changed their first daughters name for fear of her being ridiculed (more than wealready were growing up as koreans in white 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s america) so her name of Lee Haw Soon was changed to Kim Renee……kind of asian but also american. When I was adopted 3 years later, my name, Kim Mee Sun, just didn’t work since they already had a kim…..my name was changed to Sandra Mae…definitely american and even rhymed with my sisters name (awwww, how cute!) So….. I have been Sandra Mae, the name that doesn’t fit…..in High School I announced that I was going to be Sandi…with an “i”. very valley girl, but more unique than Sandy with a “y”…….I wanted to be unique.
    “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Julia, I think your name is lovely…..i think that you have been raised to BE Julia Mendelson, a jewish girl who speaks Hebrew. yet you are also your Korean name……and at this point in your life, anyone who loves you will support whatever decision you make…..
    but deep down, no matter what name labels your drivers license, or your medical chart…….you are wholly and completely, YOU, no matter what name you choose to be called.

  • 7. Margie  |  January 12, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Our children’s Korean names are their middle names. Although truthfully not used as much as their first names, they are not relegated to disuse.

    I’ve found that of my Korean American friends have a non-Korean name they use in addition to their Korean name. Some were given their names by their parents; some chose their own. I think if I had it to do over again, I would have simply kept their Korean names and let THEM choose a non-Korean name if they wanted to.

  • 8. Rebecca  |  January 12, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Hi Ji-Hoea aka Julia or Julia aka Ji-Hoea,

    I found your entry interesting as I eventually changed my name in freshmen year in college because I was sick of people butchering my Korean name–Eun Jung and having to correct people, yet still having them butchered. However, my sister kept her Korean name and has accepted the butchered version because whether people butchered or not, that was the name she wanted to be known with. One of my pet peeves is people changing or shortening my English name without asking if they can. I find myself correcting people when they call me Becky. Hello? Did you not listen to how I introduced myself? I guess whether it is my Korean name or English name, some people seem to think that they have the right to call people the way they feel like calling them without taking into consideration how important a name is for some people. In my family, my brothers and sister don’t even call me by my name but instead call me Nuna or Un-nee (big sister following the Korean culture) and my parents flip back and forth with my Korean or English name. My high school friends still call me by my Korean name, and my college and post colleg friends call me by Rebecca…. Man, do I sound like I have a multiple personality or what?! 🙂 But, in my legal documents, I have it all–Rebecca Eunjung Lee G— (didn’t want to write out my married last name.) When I went to the DMV to have my name legally changed after getting married, I had a woman tell me, “girl, you have one long name…” I guess my name reflects the complexity and perhaps the richness of my identity in some ways. 🙂

  • 9. Sara_2  |  January 13, 2008 at 10:59 am

    I guess I haven’t heard of anyone else who did quite what we did with our daughter’s name when we adopted her from China.

    As is very common (and as was true for my many American-born, non-adopted, Chinese friends) we gave her an American first name, kept her given name from her orphanage as a middle name, and then our last name. [dropped the orphanage surname as it was clearly an orphanage name and I felt as such it was stigmatizing – we know the character and the transliteration if she ever wants it]

    But – I wanted to be the one to name her. So I found an exact homonym, ie same Pinyin, as her original Chinese middle name but with different characters reflecting a different, to my mind stronger and better, meaning. On the English language documents no one would know whether the characters are the name she had in China or the other name I chose. When she is older and might want to use characters for her name, she can choose for herself.

    I hope people do not feel that my giving her a Chinese name is cultural appropriation……….

  • 10. Kris Pak  |  January 13, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    y’know, I never thought of it but the ONLY time I ever heard my middle name was when I was in trouble. It was the Franco-American maiden name of my adoptive mother, but if it were my Korean name, and the only time I heard it was when I was in trouble, I don’t think I would associate it with anything but negativity.

    I think that this is that habit of a lot of American parent. Endearing names are used for good things, reprimands are addressed to “John Thomas” or “Michelle Ann”. I hope adoptive parents who kept their kids’ original names don’t make that their habit.

    In any case, I kept my adoptive first name and was glad to acquire a Korean last name but don’t use my first Korean name unless someone asks it as it is quite an ah-joo-mah name.

  • 11. colleen  |  January 15, 2008 at 11:56 am

    With our daughter we gave her an American first name, which seems quite common among the adults and children at the Chinese school we attend. We gave her orphanage name as her middle name. We use both names interchangably something we don’t do with our biological sons mostly because I want her to feel comfortable using either one because they both represent her.

    As far as your concern about the “cultural” inspired names it is something I am battling with my husband about with our second daughter. He wants Jade and I keep telling him that Jade is actually an Hispanic name. Also, about 15 years ago, an ex-friend wanted to name her biological daughter, Asia. Her husband wouldn’t let her because he said it was “black person name.”

  • 12. AYo aka SouL  |  January 16, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    I’m in a pickle. Or rather, I am the pickle. I’ll blog about this as well. It’s hard to change your name once you’re 25 years old.

    Currently, I smushed my American and Korean names into a hip-hop alias. AYo aka SouL

  • 13. CL  |  January 21, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    I dropped my middle name and changed my last name at age 22 (I’m now twice as old) because I wanted a name that suited me. I am not an adoptee and had no cultural reason to do so. I’m amazed at the number of people over the years who have said, “You changed your name? I didn’t know you could do that!” Yep, you can do it. And you don’t need to justify your reasons to anyone.

  • 14. Mee Hee Park  |  January 22, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I came across your blog via “land of the not so calm” and so much of what you say resonates with me-this post included.

    The name thing is definitely an issue that I feel (at least in our generation of intl adoptees) was swept under the rug and not talked about. My Korean name (obviously MeeHee Park) was not used AT ALL in my adoptive American name. It never really bothered me until I was sitting in a Hmong literature class while my teacher was taking attendance and he called out “Kathryn?” and my heart flipped. I noticed everyone in the room (most of whom were of Hmong descent) staring down the only two white girls in our class, waiting for them to respond. It was literally the first time I was embarrassed of my name.

    I recently got married and incorporated my Korean name as my middle name, but many of my adoptee friends only call me Mee-Hee or KT Mee-Hee. A part of me really wanted to legally change my first name to Mee-Hee…but I chickened out b/c i didn’t want to explain myself to my relatives (who prob wouldn’t even call me by my Korean name even if it was my legal name!) crappy reason–i still beat myself up over it. Bleh~

    I say, if you want to change your name, do it! It’s a powerful thing to do, especially regarding identity and reclaiming that part of yourself.

    PS I had no idea people were naming their kids “Ryce”. are you freaking kidding me????? RYCE??? SERIOUSLY???

  • 15. Mee Hee Park  |  January 22, 2008 at 11:42 am

    PS: Can I add you to my blogroll?

  • 16. Kahlan  |  January 24, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    Pookie’s name is his Korean name given to him by his first mother. Luckily (?) for us, it is easy to say in English too and we haven’t had anybody butcher it. Yet.

  • 17. Amie Kim  |  January 25, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    I looked at your picture, and immediately thought you look like a Eun-something. Feel free to disregard my comment. :p ~AK

  • 18. soon-young  |  January 29, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Your post here made me smile because I relate and agree. I’m glad to finally get back into reading blogs because I’ve finally begun reading yours and enjoy it!

  • 19. Amanda  |  February 1, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    We gave our daughter an American first name, and kept her Chinese name as her middle name. We call her by her CN more often than not. In our travel group of eleven families we were only one of three that kept part of all of the CN.

  • 20. MeeJin  |  March 3, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    I think a name is extremely important – regardless if you end up keeping the birth name, or giving them a new one, but in the end, it should have signifcant meaning.

    I am a Korean adoptee, now 26 years old, and I’m very grate that parents chose to keep “MeeJin” which is the name my birth mother gave me. Growing up, it was sometimes tough because though I think my name is phonetically spelled, people still got it wrong and would call me, Megan, Meejshing (as though trying to make it more “Asian” flare), but now, I love it. I think it truly represents me. However, I think I lucked out for getting a name that is easily pronounced and I understand the challenges when names aren’t as close to the English language. It’s a tough decision, but I think it’s more important that you find ways to stay connected to the culture, it’s not ALL in the name.

  • 21. Songs and Names » What’s in a name? Julia’s JAM  |  March 10, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    […] Research more about this from here […]

  • 22. AmericanFamily  |  April 9, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    We adopted our younger daughter from China. My husband is Chinese American and his given name was a Western name, so he felt it was important that our daughter have the option of a western name also. I felt strongly that we should not take any pieces of our daughter’s Chinese name away (including her family name) which were given to her by someone at her orphanage. We debated long and hard of the order of her four names and decided to go with: New western name – Chinese Given Name – Orphanage family name – My husband’s family name. We wanted to keep both her family names together in case she decides to use both or hypenate them, she won’t have to do a legal name change.

    Before we traveled to China, we used our daughter’s chinese name when referring to her. We didn’t know if we would call her by her western name (R) or by her Chinese name (Q) once we met her. We were reluctant to use Q because even though it is easy to pronounce, most Americans would mangle both the pronunciation and the spelling.

    We were thrilled when we met one of our daughter’s nannies a few days before we met her and we learned they called her “L” which is a diminutive of Q. Q had never felt exactly right, but when we heard she was called “L”, we knew that was her name. We have called her L ever since.

    At 11 months old, our daughter clearly knew her name was L. I am so glad we followed our instincts and let her keep that tie to her previous life, home and her caregivers. L had a very difficult transition and I imagine that changing her name would only have made it more so.

  • 23. Clofsscoown  |  August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Hi, the content is really useful for me. I ‘ll continue to keep a close eye on your website. Please do update.


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Julia’s Jam

It’s just not that black & white. Not because I am taking a stand against. Just because, the issues I face are somewhere in the grey area and to weed through them, I blog. I blog. ~

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