One of my goals for 2016 is to finalize my name change. I’m downloading forms, waiting on copies of documents, and trying to figure out if I really need a lawyer or if I can squeak through on my own. It’s not a difficult process, but it requires not insignificant portions of money and time, two of my least favorite things to waste.
Changing my name on social media, happily, cost nothing and took no time at all, unless you count the entire afternoon I spent psyching myself up for other people’s questions. “I noticed your new name on Facebook!” a college friend wrote the next day. “Is it like…a pen name? For writing purposes?”
Several other people messaged me: “Is everything okay??” With you and your husband, they obviously meant. A few asked, “How does he feel about it?”
I thought about writing back: “Oh, he understands. He knows this is not a rejection of him so much as it is a rejection of whiteness.”
What I actually said was, “He’s happy for me.”
A brief tally of male opinions about my name change:
My husband supports me in this decision, as he does in all things.
My birth father, I think, is pleased. (It’s always hard to tell with him.)
My adoptive dad told me, “I think it would be more respectful if you kept your husband’s name as part of your name, at least.”
No other men have offered their thoughts on this decision, which is fine.
As I moved from childhood into adolescence, my adoptive parents’ line on my birth family names inexplicably changed from “no one ever told us what their names were” to “the social worker told us their names were and ‘foreign and unpronounceable.’” In any case, all I could do was wonder.
I never felt any real attachment to my adoptive last name, which many people did find unpronounceable. While this apathy was long a source of some unease, even guilt – I was supposed to want to keep “my” name, right? Surely I ought to feel more loyalty to it? – the truth was I couldn’t wait to be rid of it. Others might have viewed it as an immutable part of my identity, but I never did. It always felt just a bit off, like it was meant to be someone else’s name.
My first name annoyed me a bit, too, because I didn’t think I looked like a Nicole. But my last name was worse because it genuinely confused people, leading to awkward conversations. Someone would ask me, “How did that happen?” or a substitute teacher would break off in the middle of calling roll to exclaim, “But you look part Asian!” So then I would say, “I’m adopted. And I’m completely Asian.” Over the years I got used to making these explanations, but I never really got used to my name.
When I got engaged, I realized my husband’s name was no better fit. Too, I felt a bit uncomfortable taking his family name because, for various reasons, I didn’t yet feel like part of the family. But at least it was a name I didn’t actively dislike, a name I imagined I could get used to, despite all the societal pressures and expectations that ensured it would not be an apolitical choice. It was also easy to spell and pronounce: no longer would I have to correct anyone whose tongue tripped over my adoptive name.
At the time I had never been in contact with my birth family and still had no idea what my original last name had been. Several more years would pass before I found both the motivation and the nerve to petition the King County Court for my sealed adoption file. I was closing in on my twenty-seventh birthday when I finally learned the name I had been given in the hospital, the name by which I was known in the NICU and then the nursery until my adoption at the age of two and a half months.
I marveled at this name the first time I heard it, imagining why it had been chosen, what it meant. I had been so small and alone when it was given to me, a child waiting, between two lives, but even then I wasn’t no one. I was always me. And I’d had a name, even if I wouldn’t be able to hold onto it.
When I first began thinking about changing my name, I talked with some adoptees who had already been through the process. My friend JaeRan said she had initially been inspired by another adoptee who’d changed her name in 2001. “Up to that point it had never even occurred to me that a Korean adoptee could or would change their name,” she told me.
She thought it over for a few years. On a visit to Korea for the International Korean Adoptee Associations Gathering, in 2004, she had everyone call her JaeRan “to see how it would feel.” As soon as she returned from that trip, she began the process to make it official. “I have never regretted it,” she said. “It feels so much more authentic to who I am.”
My friend Amanda told me that she added her birth surnames as middle names in part because she realized there existed no official, accessible documents that would allow her descendants to trace her – and thus their own – biological roots. “Plus, the names are mine,” she added. “I’ve had three names in my life I didn’t choose; I wanted one that I did. Whenever I have to show ID, I get comments: ‘Your name is too long!’ My retort is, ‘I have to deal with the complexity of having four families; you get the minor inconvenience of seeing their names on my ID. Sounds like a good deal to me.’”
I’ve always felt like an inauthentic Korean, and I used to fret that reclaiming my birth name would be inauthentic, too. I imagined people would judge me for it, or think I was grasping for something to which I had no right. That’s my father’s name, not mine.
But every now and then, to my great surprise, I would find myself practicing it: pairing it with my first name; saying it in my head or sometimes, quietly, aloud; writing it in English and in Hangul. The more I practiced, the more I liked it — the way it hit my ear, the way it looked on the page, was new and strangely pleasing. I can’t remember a single conversation or event that pushed me over the edge. It was simply a gradual shift I made, over the course of years, from thinking of the name as someone else’s to thinking of it as mine.
I do remember the first time I said the name aloud, in a discussion with my husband, and realized that it just seemed to fit. “It’s a better, if still not quite perfect, reflection of who I am,” I remember saying. Soon after I began talking about the possibility of a name change with my sister, a few close friends. Everyone was intrigued, supportive of the idea. No one asked me “why would you want to do that?” or offered up even the slightest hint of the suggestion that I didn’t have the right.
When I was close to making up my mind, I gathered up my courage and spoke to my birth father. I told him I was thinking about changing my name; that I wanted that link to my heritage. (I was careful not to say “I want to take your name.”) As important as his family is to him, I don’t think he yet understands why missing out on the chance to be a part of it is such a big deal to me. But he knows the loss of my culture is one I still feel. The joy and relief I felt when he quickly gave me his blessing to change my name made it impossible to deny, any longer, that this was what I wanted.
Over the past several months, many people have pointed out that if I don’t want the hassle (and I really don’t), I can always keep my legal name and call myself whatever I want. But despite the time and trouble, I do want to proceed with the legal change. I like the idea of having the same name on all my documents and IDs almost as much as I like the idea of never again having anyone I’ve just met ask me how I “got that name,” or automatically know that I’m adopted and/or married based solely on our introduction.
In the end, the change has nothing to do with wanting to undo my adoption or erase the evidence of it, as I took great pains to explain to my adoptive parents on a visit last year. My adoption, a decision made by others, is woven through the fabric of my life and will always be a part of me — and I’ve reached the point where I am glad of it. But I’ve also come to think of my original name as one more piece of history, one more aspect of my identity over which I finally have ownership.
When my mother asked me if I would mind not sharing a last name with my daughters, I wasn’t upset; before I got married, before I became a parent, I used to wonder if I’d mind. But since having them, I’ve come to understand that nothing could make me feel like anything other than my kids’ mom. They’re children of my body and my heart, and those connections aren’t remotely dependent on the names we have. And someday, who knows, we might share a name again. My eight-year-old, far from being bothered by the change, is fascinated by it; every time I get a piece of mail addressed to my new name, she points to it and grins as if we’re sharing some private joke. I think she’s starting to understand what this decision means for me, and sometimes she talks about the possibility of making my name part of hers one day. “I want a Korean middle name, too,” she’s told me, several times now.
She might forget the whole thing, of course, or decide she is perfectly content with the names on her own birth certificate. But watching me go through this process has taught her that names and identities are not necessarily forever fixed; they can be complicated, fluid, evolving things. Names can be chosen, changed, given or lost. And sometimes they can be found again.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.