What’s in a Name?

Something many adoptive parents struggle with is whether or not to keep their child’s name.  Like most other issues surrounding adoption, this answer is complicated and varies from situation to situation. Many transnational adoptees, myself included, have an American first name and a non-Western middle name. This solution seems to satisfy the desire to keep cultural ties and still “fit in” with other white American peers. I have said before that I am grateful for my simple, American name. On paper, I could be anyone – not necessarily a person of color.  In a world where xenophobia does exist, I think at times having a typically American name has benefited me.

“As worried as I was about jobs/resume presentation, I was also worried about him getting man-handled by the TSA. Names impact people and presumptions in all sorts of ways, not just jobs. But I do think region of the country makes a difference. For example, NYC is its own very multiethnic world. With lots of multiethnic names. And it makes a difference if it’s a corporate job or going for the arts.” ~ Michelle Hughes 

At times, though, I have also wanted to go by my Chinese name. At Chinese school or with other Chinese people, I will often introduce myself by that name. I am proud to be a Chinese person, as well as an American, and I feel that I should be proud to carry that name too.

“We never considered doing anything other than keeping our kids’ given Thai names. Their birth families named them and that is a source of pride for my boys, now 4 and 6. If they decide they’d like more Western sounding names in the future, they may use the middle names we gave them, but I hope they don’t. Their names are beautiful and part of their identity.” ~ Robin Stephens

When my name is called from a sheet of paper, and I raise my hand or stand up, it is obvious that sometimes the person on the other end is startled. Probably expecting a brunette of mixed European ancestry, I sometimes feel compelled to explain that I am adopted. This, however, gets tiresome, and sometimes I wonder how much of my story is just mine.  If I used my Chinese name, I could be a Chinese American living in the U.S., not necessarily an Asian American adoptee.

“We felt strongly about keeping our son’s Ethiopian name. It is difficult for people to pronounce, but we don’t really use a nickname. We love his name and the meaning. It means a lot to us that we can tell him who named him and the story behind it, and I know as he gets older it will mean a lot to him as well. It did not feel right to us to change his name.” ~ Luaren Palizzolo Jordan

But then I think of the original reason I like having a general name that allows me to be any American on paper.  And as long as my parents are a different race from me, I would still be explaining my adoption to people anyways. Perhaps if my parents had made my Chinese name my first name, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do now.

“My parents gave us American middle names, which we use as our preferred names.” ~ Tiffany Napela

Another factor I believe is important in deciding whether or not to change a child’s name is age. Since I was three years old when I was adopted, I knew my name. My parents called me just my Chinese name for a while and slowly integrated my American name, so I got used to being called both. If I had been asked to simply respond to a different name right away, I’m sure that would have been confusing to me. Names are a part of people’s identifications. Especially for older adoptees who remember more culture, language, food and have a longer, stronger attachment to their name, I think I would lean more towards keeping their name.

“I never considered changing my children’s names, since they were already preschoolers with their own identities. The decision to take on a more “American” sounding name should be left up to the child as he or she matures. Adopted children already give up so much; this is an area they should be given more control.”

It makes me very happy to hear adoptive families thoughts about renaming or keeping the names of their children – not because they’re put in a tough situation, but because it is clear that they are taking it so seriously. I don’t think one choice is better than the other. Although adoptive parents need to choose what they think would be in their child’s best interest, I think the final judgement should be up to the adoptee. And I think it is adoptive parents’ responsibility to be supportive and accepting of their child’s decision, even if it means their name doesn’t quite fit in with all of the other family names.

“I changed my daughter’s Ethiopian name to make it easier for her (or so I thought) since our last name is quite a mouthful for most folks. About a year ago, I started regretting my decision to change her name. Never mentioned this feeling to my daughter but about six months ago she announced that she was changing it back to her Ethiopian name. It’s perfect!” ~ Alison Aucoin

As for me, I feel content with my ethnically mixed name. I like to go by both my American name and Chinese name. I strongly identify as a Chinese American, and I feel that as a daughter of two countries, two cultures, and two families, both names represent me.

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7 responses to “What’s in a Name?

  1. Hello – is there anyway to reach you (blog author)? I am involved with an adoptive parents’ group in the Twin Cities and your voice is the one I want to hear! I would love to promote your blog to our members to start with. I will put my email below, if you are interested.


  2. I am an adoptee and also have an adopted daughter who was born in China. We kept her middle name from the orphanage, but she does not like it. I also think about how she was named by orphanage workers and not by her parents (it’s kind of a fake name, but it is all she has). She has asked to change her middle name to Grace.

    At 46 I learned my given name and foster home name (yes, they changed a baby’s name in 1966 in foster care, presumably so that horrible birth mother could not find the baby she gave birth to). I have an adopted name and got married and got another name. I met my first mom and dad and they both have their own last names which are part of me. I use a different name when I write many times. I think the big thing is that I get to decide what I want to do. I am going to encourage my daughter to keep her Chinese name in her arsenal for now even if she does not use it, and use the American middle name she chooses in a non-legal way. If she wants to change it later officially I will support her in that…after all, it’s HER identity, and she gets to own it.

    I have a Bible that has almost all my names engraved on it…that is my way of claiming all the names that encompass how I see myself….


    • My Chinese name was also given to me by my orphanage, but I do not consider it a fake name. I was called that with love for a year of my life. It’s interesting to me how names play a role in identity, and I long to know my birth name, as well. It sounds like you have also thought a lot about names, and I appreciate your decision in letting your daughter own her identity.


  3. We are in the process of adopting from Taiwan and I really appreciate your insight on this. It is such a common question from family/friends…but we feel strongly about waiting from input from our child, especially knowing they will have strong memories and attachments to Taiwan.


  4. My little brother was adopted from foster care when he was 3. His first name was hyphenated and he was not aware of his middle name so they chose to drop the middle name and separate the first name to created name that he would be able to write in kindergarten. When he turned 8 he became very angry that his name included the name of his birth father and not his Real dad. My mother promised him that he could change his name to match dads at 16 when he got his drivers license if he wanted to but in the meantime she showed him famous people( inventors, painter writers athletes) that had the same name. He will be allowed to change his name at 16 but right now he feels proud of his name.


  5. As with many American a-parents, at least in the 1990s, we retained our two daughters’ original names (Chinese, Thai) as middle names, chose more typical American names (with a meaningful family connection) as first names, and gave them our surname. However … we have told them many times, since they were young, that this was a choice made thoughtfully but that we know these names were imposed on them, and that we realize at some point they may prefer that we’d made another choice. We offered, and continue to offer, support and legal costs if it ever comes to the point that they prefer a name change, including surnames. We have tried to emphasize the ‘family affirmation’ aspect of the choice but also acknowledge that we know they have another family and may ultimately prefer another path.

    I don’t think there are any perfect answers; it’s a knotty question. At this point both kids (now 15 and 17) continue to use the names we gave them (they were both 1 year old at the time). Some years later, who knows?


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