Nikki is a writer, graduate student, and publications director at a nonprofit. Her writings on identity, transracial adoption, and her adoption search/reunion include an essay in Somebody’s Child: Stories About Adoption, an article in the book Are Adoption Policies Fair? and guest blog posts at Are Women Human? and Portrait of an Adoption. She lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband and two children.
Names, for adoptees, can be confusing. I was born to Korean immigrants in Seattle and adopted by Caucasian parents at the age of two months. My adoption was closed, meaning there was no contact at all between my birth and adoptive parents – which is extremely rare in adoption nowadays, for good reason.
Because I was essentially cut off from my origins at the time of placement, my adoptive parents never knew my birthparents’ full names – or my given name, the name on my original (sealed) birth certificate. I don’t believe they ever asked or wanted to know; they just wanted to adopt a child and have as little contact as possible with the birth family. Which is precisely what happened.
I never liked my last name, my adoptive father’s surname. It was an Americanized mangling of an Eastern European name, shortened when his great-grandparents came to the U.S. With only six letters (half of them vowels), it was misspelled on school Valentines and mispronounced from the podium at every important event. I think it was impossible for even my best friends to say my last name with total confidence.
And my name led to this particularly memorable exchange with a substitute teacher in high school:
Him [calling roll]: Nicole…um…I’m not even going to try this one. How do you say your last name?
Me: It’s ______.
Him: Wow. What kind of a name is that, exactly?
Me: It’s Hungarian.
Him: Hungarian? So your father is Hungarian?
Me: His name is.
Him: Ah. And your mother is…?
Him: But that’s – I mean, you – it’s just, I’m sorry, but you look sort of like you are…part Asian?
Me: I AM COMPLETELY ASIAN.
So, not only was I saddled with this last name no one could pronounce or remember how to spell, my last name didn’t match my face at all, and led to stares, double takes, and awkward conversations with clueless strangers who wanted to know all about my family history. Is it any wonder I couldn’t wait to get rid of my adoptive surname? Even if I had never married, I believe I would have changed it eventually.
But I did marry, in 2003. My husband and I have been happy, and lucky, for nearly ten years. We have two great kids, and all four of us share the same last name – that is, my husband’s.
I took his last name with no outside pressure from anyone else and no qualms. I don’t recall discussing it with him, actually; I think I just informed him of my decision – adding that I wanted to share a last name with our children – and he said, “Okay.” I liked his last name far better than my adoptive one; it was blessedly easy to spell and pronounce; and it meant something to me that it was a choice I was making – to start and join a new family, to take a new name.
I suppose a lot of people we knew simply expected that I would take his name, and maybe some other people were disappointed that I did. But while I did consider myself a feminist at the time of our marriage and still do today, my formative discussions about feminism didn’t really touch the last name issue. For whatever reason, at the time I married, I didn’t think of keeping my maiden name as a feminist calling card. I always thought it was my choice, a choice I’d make when I had to make it.
In 2007, I searched for and made contact with my birthparents. From them, and from my sister, I learned a great deal about my family of origin. I also learned that my name at birth was Soo Jung Chung. Most members of my birth family have a Korean name and a Western name; they were going to call me Susan, or Susie for short.
Since then, I’ve thought about taking the name Chung – to honor that connection that was severed; to finally have a last name that reflects my Korean heritage. I still may become a Chung, someday, if I ever get to a point where I feel entirely comfortable owning the name. But for now, it’s just too huge of a step to take when it still feels like someone else’s name. Soo Jung, on the other hand, really was mine, and mine alone – it was the name my birthfather chose for me before I was born. I use it as a middle name now.
Recently I was explaining to a friend why I took my husband’s name and jettisoned an adoptive surname to which I felt almost no connection. She challenged: “But you didn’t make that ‘choice’ in a vacuum. Society’s expectations had to have affected your decision. Why didn’t your husband change his name to a composite name, something you both chose?”
I think that last question, while fair, also kind of misses the point. I don’t think it’s necessary for either partner or both partners to change their name(s) upon marriage as a way of commemorating the beginning of a new commitment, a new family. Names are not what give legitimacy to a commitment. I wouldn’t want my husband to give up a name that was his (in a way that my maiden name never felt like it was mine), a name to which he did feel a real connection. If I had been truly attached to my maiden name, if I had strongly identified with it, I wouldn’t have wanted to give it up for some composite name, either.
So, when people ask me why I changed my name when I got married, I usually tell them, “I’m adopted – and it’s complicated.” If they press for details, and stick around long enough to listen, I tell them what I’ve just shared here. A new name and a new identity were given to me – some might say imposed on me – when I was adopted. When I changed my name upon marriage, it struck me as a way of determining my own name – and, in all honesty, that choice did make me feel empowered. I was a two-month-old infant who had absolutely no say in the matter when my first name was erased and my adoptive name written in. My last name, my married name, may not go with my face, but at least it was a name I was able to consider and then choose for myself.
A quick note about images in this series: each essay will include an image of a place that holds personal meaning for the author. – G
Let’s Talk About Names: Soulamami is the next post in the series.