Let’s Talk about Names: Nikki

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.


Nicole Soojung Callahan

Image used with permission of the author.

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…?

Me: Polish.

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.

Him: Oh.

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.

Multnomah Falls, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area

Multnomah Falls, Oregon. Image used with permission of the author.

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.

17 Comments

  1. :) I really appreciate you sharing your adoptee perspective on this. When I was young, I thought being a feminist meant I didn’t want to get married. But then I met a guy and wanted to marry him – quandary! So then I thought being a feminist meant I wouldn’t take his name. But then he told me it was important to him (mostly so us and our future kids would all share a name) and I said okay. Not reluctantly, but happily. I had barely started unpacking my adoption fog at that point. In hindsight, I know I gave up my surname easily because I wasn’t all that attached to it – as an adoptee, it felt foisted on me. I am comfortable with my married name most especially because it feels like a choice where *I* had the agency. I know what my birth surname is, too, and I similarly feel I can’t completely own it. Thanks again! :)

    • I’m glad this post resonated with you — obviously it would, since it sounds as if we were in similar circumstances and made similar choices. Thanks for reading & commenting, MB. :)

      I don’t think it’s necessary, but I am glad to have the same last name as my kids, and if I ever do change my surname again, it’ll probably be when they’re older. However, a lot would have to change for me to feel comfortable claiming my birth surname.

  2. Lovely! Thank you for sharing your story with us, Nicole. And oof – that conversation with the teacher. That must have been so uncomfortable for you :/ I can see asking a student how to pronounce their name, in order not to mangle it and to be respectful, but the questions should have stopped there, or at LEAST waited until after class when the teacher could have asked you privately. (Although even still, it just feels so unnecessarily intrusive…)

    I love that you point out that for you, taking your spouse’s name was a way of determining your own identity. *That* is powerful, and definitely feminist, IMO :)

    • Thanks for this comment, Alison. The angst of some feminists over other women taking their spouses’ surnames bothers me in part because it does ignore the crucial fact that not all of us DO feel connected to our fathers’ names — for a whole variety of reasons. We may not feel that those names are “ours.” Honestly, it was such a relief to shed my adoptive surname — I have absolutely no regrets about it!

      And yes, that whole conversation with the substitute teacher was ridic. He didn’t actually stop there — he went on to say: “oh, so you’re adopted?” and I was like “yes” and then he asked if I knew my birthparents and OH MY GOD JUST FINISH CALLING THE ROLL. But this is part and parcel of being adopted — everyone just feels entitled to ask you all about your family history.

      • But this is part and parcel of being adopted — everyone just feels entitled to ask you all about your family history.

        Ugh, I bet, and that must get reeeeally tiresome. My best friend is adopted and he’s also gotten a lot of that, though I imagine it’s magnified even more for you, being a WOC. That whole OMG WHAT ARE YOU conversation. Yuck!

        • So it’s funny — now that I am an adult, I’m pretty much an open book when it comes to my adoption. Sometimes I think people’s questions are inappropriate, but often I will answer just because I’m used to it — I’m very comfortable talking (and writing) about adoption generally and my own history specifically. That said, I wonder how much of that is because I never really had a choice; being a transracial adoptee, I HAD to learn to talk about it, from a very young age. It was always clear to other people that I was not my parents’ biological child, and they would ask about it. It’s a chicken-or-egg sort of thing for me now, and it makes me wonder if I’d be more private about my family history if not for all those invasive questions during childhood.

        • oh, and I do get a lot of “what are you?” or the Asian Wheel of Fortune game. SOMETIMES, people will even ask my husband: “so…what is your wife, exactly?” Which is always wonderful.

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  5. HollywoodMarie says:

    Wow. So much of that rang true for me in so many different ways. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I think this post is another great example of one-size-does-not-fit-all feminism. Also a great example of why keeping “your” name can be problematic – you may never have liked it, and odds are that it’s a name passed down from the men in your family anyway. My mother’s last name is extremely rare and I have always been sad that there is no one to keep it alive (I’d take it, but I already have two middle names!), meanwhile my keeping of my father’s family name is seen as a feminist victory.

    • you may never have liked it, and odds are that it’s a name passed down from the men in your family anyway.

      Exactly. In my case especially, I never felt a strong connection to my adoptive name, or my father’s family (which is what that name represented to me — that family tree, that history). I wish I’d felt more a part of that family, but it just didn’t really work out that way. And, yeah, I was just sick of no one being able to pronounce it.

      Wanting to drop my maiden name shouldn’t be interpreted, necessarily, as some harsh judgment of my parents, either. But I did always see that name as THEIR identity, not mine. So getting rid of it didn’t feel like compromising my identity at all.

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  9. I totally agree. I’m glad that you were able to take a name that better reflected you. Ultimately, I think it’s up to each individual person (female or male) whether they take a new name in marriage or not.

    Names are tricky things – they define and confine. I know several people who have asked to be called names other than the ones they were given at birth. Sometimes it’s hard to adjust to, but in the end it’s one’s own, personal choice to make.

    Great read!

    • Thanks for the comment, C. I was so glad to participate in this roundtable — the other posts are so great!