Living with two names: reclaiming birth identities

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When I was in second grade, I went through a mini identity crisis. For reasons I can’t really remember (I was probably bored and wanted to seem unique), I decided to use my Korean birth name on all my school papers. Of course everyone at school, including my teacher, knew me as Jodi, but for some reason, I wanted people to start knowing me as Soh Young (or Lee Soh Young / 이소영 to be exact). And so for a couple months, that was what I did. I used my Korean name on all my school papers and temporarily went by the first name of Soh Young. Kind of dorky, I know. But for some reason, it seemed important to me at the time.

It didn’t last long. Besides the obvious fact that my name had a literal meaning in English, “Oh, you’re so young! Hahaha!” at the end of the day, it wasn’t really who I was. I was Jodi pure and simple. And so after a few months of experimentation, I went back to being Jodi, and everything was right again in my world, and my teacher’s, parents’ and classmates’ worlds. No one was confused anymore.

Then I got older, traveled the world, including Korea, and met some other Korean adoptees around my age, and I started noticing interesting things about some of them, like how they would go by their Korean birth names, either fully or partially. There was Nicole Kim, for example. She was raised with an Anglo first and last name, but for whatever reason, decided she wanted to be known as Nicole Kim as an adult. (Nicole being her adopted first name and Kim being her given surname at birth.)

And then there was the interesting story of my friend Pam, who I met during my years living in Florida. Her mother was Korean, her father an American solider who did not marry her mother and who remained absent throughout Pam’s childhood. So when Pam’s mother did get married, her new (American) husband officially adopted Pam as his own, and while she continues to go by her American name, using the last name of her adoptive father, Pam’s Facebook page also very discreetly lists her Korean name, Yang Sung Young.

Identity among Korean adoptees, I am finding, is a very peculiar thing. It’s also a very personal choice.

When I was working in Korea as the only American in an organization with an all-Korean staff, my co-workers wanted to know what my Korean name was. Sounds simple enough, right? When I told them, the next thing they asked was what the Chinese characters were for my Korean name. Unfortunately I had no idea. Apparently, that was very important to them as it gave a literal translation as to what my name meant. I was always told my name translated into “bright and shining,” but without the Chinese characters confirming this, it was simply a difficult thing for my Korean colleagues to grasp. Try as they might, a few so very much wanted to call me Lee Soh-Young shi and yet, whenever they did, I never responded. And so they eventually caught on and went back to calling me Jodi, and just like in second grade, everything was once again right in their world and mine.

I have spoken about this trend of adoptees going by their birth and adopted names with a fellow adoptee friend of mine who, like me, has chosen not to go by his Korean name but who unlike me, is very involved in the Korean adoptee world and has heard a number of viewpoints about this and many other issues pertaining to Korean adoptees.

He told me of one adoptee who found out he had been abducted as a baby. As a result, he has chosen to go by his Korean name as an adult because he felt it had been stolen from him as a child.

And I personally know of an adoptee who was adopted at the age of 5—old enough to have memories of Korea. For obvious reasons, he also has chosen to blend his adopted American name with his given Korean name.

And then there are those who simply identify with both worlds—the one they were born into and the one they grew up in. For this reason, many have chosen to blend their two names, often going by their adopted name as their first name and Korean family name as their last name.

The decision to blend names or completely repossess one’s Korean name/identity brings with it a whole different set of sensitive issues for some adoptees. I know one adoptee who tells me he would never go by his Korean name because he knows it would hurt his adoptive family, who throughout his entire life treated him no differently than they treated biologically related family members. On top of that, there are sensitivities as to how the American/Western world as a whole would react to such names: teasing is a big factor and assimilation is another. These are concerns that continue even into adulthood.

At the end of day, it all comes down to comfort. There are some adoptees like myself who are comfortable in their adopted, (American) skin and others who feel they are straddling both worlds and whose names reflect that dual identity; then there are others who have chosen to keep the identities they came into this world possessing and who for this reason, have reclaimed their Korean birth names.

Whatever the reasons are, living with two names is not uncommon for many adoptees. It very much symbolizes not only where they come from (two distinct and different worlds), but it also confirms their own personal identities. It can be a complex issue for non-adoptees to grasp, but as an adoptee, I totally get it. To me, it all makes perfect sense.

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