Finding our own names

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Ji In, originally published at Twice the Rice

In The New York Times, adoptive mom Suzanne Paola reflects on the ways her son Jin, adopted from Korea, has constructed his own unique identity.

My son, at age 8½, changed his name to Penguin S’ Ice, and he has kept that name for almost a year now, un-bratty in his corrections, but adamant.

Paola’s essay serves as a reminder that no matter what parents expect, children can remake their identities in the most unpredictable ways — as Jin Penguin S’ Ice demonstrates.

The “S” stands for … I don’t know. The apostrophe is equally vague but definite. When he is asked what his name is — as kids are a half-dozen times a day — he says, “Penguin” or “Penguin S’ Ice” with a trace of discomfort but no explanation. … … Sometimes when people encounter his new name, they assume it’s Asian. “Oh, so that’s your original name?” they ask. “What does it mean?” He responds with an incredulous look. “It means Penguin.”

When I was in the first grade, I started filling “Kathleen” in the Name blank on the tops of my school papers instead of my given name. “Is that your middle name?” my teacher asked, obviously amused. “Yes,” I lied. My teacher looked in her class roster and discovered that my middle name was not, in fact, Kathleen. She asked me about it the next day. I just shrugged and pretended that I had been “Kathleen” all along. By the following week, I had changed my name again to Stephanie. I never thought to name myself after a flightless, aquatic bird, but then I was more into unicorns, cats and ballerinas at that age. Still, I think maybe I can feel Jin/Penguin on this one. Though in those days, I didn’t wrestle with a remnant of my Korean name, as my parents had chosen to give me a complete American name makeover when I was adopted, I often questioned why they had given me the name they did, and expressed aloud my disdain for it. “I don’t like the way it looks,” I would explain to them.

Looking back on those moments, I’ve realized that it wasn’t the way my name looked that I didn’t like. It was the way I looked. I would have given anything to look like the kind of girl who belonged to an American name. Although I reclaimed my Korean name more than 20 years later, Ji In wasn’t a name I would have been ready to explain at age 6 … 8 1/2 … or 18, for that matter. When it was time, I just knew.

Jin’s transformation into Penguin makes me wonder if perhaps “Penguin” appeals to him in a way that makes the most basic sense in his own world, as he chooses to belong with these winged friends who never question him or his reasons for being who he is … while perhaps “Jin” is an indicator that he and his name come from somewhere else as a result of someone else’s choices — which probably doesn’t make sense at his age. (Will it ever?)

Maybe writing “Jin” on the tops of his school papers belies the way he sees himself on the inside, and challenges his freedom to choose his own identity, his own answers, and his own reasons for being who he is. Or maybe he just really likes penguins.

At any rate, for adoptees, our identities — and the long process of constructing and embracing them — are complex. In some ways, I mourn the loss of a connection to my Korean name upon my adoption, so that I had to forge it anew at age 29. In other ways, I know that the rude questions and quizzical, incredulous looks from people who wouldn’t have understood the presence of a Korean name in their white American space would have set me apart and created more grief for me, as I wished only to get through one day without being derided for being different.

Seeing or hearing about young intercountry adoptees whose adoptive parents retained their given names, either in whole or in part, makes me feel simultaneously a bit envious and a bit sorry for whatever grief it may cause them. I only hope that their adoptive families recognize and actively honor the importance of connecting to ethnic heritage and birth culture — through food, travel, community support, mentorship, the arts and beyond — besides just names. And equally, I hope that the communities where they live are vastly more representative of all kinds of names and backgrounds than the one in which I lived as a child — where “diversity” and “cultural awareness” meant comprehending the difference between Olson and Olsen.

I’m not sure why Paola’s piece is in the Fashion & Style section, but the “Modern Love” heading would certainly seem to apply to her love affair with her little Penguin. I hope someday he loves his Korean name as much as he currently loves penguins.

Ji In is a writer, editor and adult transracial adoptee living on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976 and joined her adoptive family in the United States that same year. Ji In blogs about transracial and intercountry adoption, cultural identity and race consciousness at Twice the Rice.
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