Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What's in a name?

Thought-provoking post on the power of naming:

"Well, then, if I'm a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?"
"When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be."
-- A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L'Engle

"The power of a name--that's old magic."
-- Doctor Who ("The Shakespeare Code")

As is held in folktales and legends, there is great power in a person's name. Madeleine L'Engle brought this up in her Wrinkle In Time series: to Name is to create, to Un-name is to destroy. The practice of unnaming and renaming adoptees is an attempt to assert control over us. It's said that if you know someone's true name, you have absolute power over them. The very fact that adoptees' true names are sequestered by the state is evidence of this ancient law stretching into our modern society. For if we adoptees knew our true names, we could reclaim the power that has been taken from us, the power to access our records without restriction.

Adopters and prospective adopters are often eager to rename adoptees, especially international adoptees whose foreign names serve as a constant reminder that adoption is not the same as giving birth. By renaming the adoptee, the adoptive parents assert their expectations that the adoptee will have the personality and nature desired--that they will become the person they have been named. Such attempts are doomed to failure. Adopters and prospective adopters need to get out of the mindset that adopting is like picking the exact item they want out of a catalog. Part of this is acknowledging that adoptees had names and identities before they were adopted.

What do you think? Should adoptive parents change children's names? I did -- my kids each have an American name, a French name, and part of their Chinese name. Does it matter who gave them the name (in China, it won't be the birth parents who give the name)? Is changing the name a perfectly appropriate act of claiming? or is it an erasure of the child's rightful past? Is the answer something in-between (as these things usually are)?

Does it matter what the new name is? When I read above: "By renaming the adoptee, the adoptive parents assert their expectations that the adoptee whill have the personality and nature desired -- that they will become the person they have been named," I had a "Eureka" moment. It explained perfectly why I was so horrified when new parents in my travel group named their daughter CHARITY. Poor child.

BTW, the picture above is a page from the lifebook I made for Zoe. That's Mr. Gan, then-director of Zoe's orphanage, and Ms. Wei, now-director.


Wendy said...

Oh God, Charity. Sad.

We had such a hard time with M's name, we wanted to keep the name her foster family called her but no one would tell us that until AFTER we had filled out the papers. We did have her American name picked (basically because where we live her Chinese name would have been mispronounced EVERYDAY of her life! Ironically, her American name is an issue. Hmmm. We did keep her Chinese name as her middle name and have told her that if at any point she wants to change her name that we are fine with it. They do call use her Chinese name at Chiese school.
It is a hard decision though because we know that her birthparents didn't name her the name she eventually was given. Thought provoking.

btw--did the girls get their gift from M? She asked me.

Anonymous said...

Charity is an old word meaning love. In the words of the apostle Paul, "So abide these three: faith, hope, and charity (love) and the greatest of these is charity." I think it's a beautiful name and I'm sure her parents did also. It is just unfortunate that in our modern usage the meaning has been degraded.


malinda said...

LAH, that's a reallly interesting point. I had not heard that before. And maybe that's what the family was thinking -- it was a Mennonite family! I hope the child knows of this definition growing up, or she'll have every reason to think her parents expect her to be perpetually grateful.

Wendy said...

I think that is all well and good, the original meaning; HOWEVER, you have to consider the long-term and the outside appearance of the name to all of those the child will face throughout her lifetime. I just cannot see how they would feel the name Charity would be okay knowing the climate in our country and the attitude that many project on our kids--as if they were charity cases. They are not and this only adds to the idea of "saving" and being grateful.

At least she can change her name when she is grown.

malinda said...

How's this for a naming issue -- Angelina Jolie's and Brad Pitt's bio children Vivienne Marcheline and Knox Leon were given "family names" -- Marcheline being Jolie's mother's name. None of her adopted kids was given a "family name;" but then again, neither was Shiloh, a bio child.

What can we make of that?

Beverly said...

G's Chinese name would not have done her well here. Very few people would have pronounced it well and it isn't even her first name. It is only the name the SWI gave her. For about a month she had to be called something else by someone we don't know. Had I been clever I would have used her Chinese name in translation but I didn't think that fast. I kept it as an extra middle name which she can either reject or keep at a later date. Of course come to think of it her G name causes spelling problems with most adults! Adoptees are going to have a lot of trouble in this world explaining their beginning or family without adding an impossible name to prounounce. Yes, G's names (all of them) connect her to our family and her birth country. I can't feel guilty as an a. parent for not using her chinese name daily because I wasn't the one who took her first name from her. I usually call her nicknames anyway so it is almost a non-issue in our home.

Charity is a very pretty name that has taken a turn in modern language as far as definition goes, you know kind of like "gay" doesn't mean the same happy go lucky term it used to? Love is the meaning a Mennonite would use I would think as they remain sort of old world. And Charity sounds better than love.

I know someone named Chassity, how is that one for keeping you pure through your teens? heh.

Anonymous said...

"Charity"? Excuse my language, but WTF?!


"Does it matter who gave them the name (in China, it won't be the birth parents who give the name)?"

Yes. Very much so. A name IS a name, regardless of whether or not an adoptee was named by the original parents or the orphanage director. As adoptee Sang-Shil said in a blog spot: We have already lost so much. The one thing we DO have is our names, and it is a part of our heritages and origins.

I don't think that putting the original Chinese name as a middle name is "erasing" the English name or "claiming" to erase the original identity.

It's when the adoptive parents get rid of the *entire* original name by changing it completely and acting as if that name never existed in the first place - that's when I would say they are trying to claim that their daughter is theirs alone.

Anyway you've inspired another blog post about the issue of names, which I will probably be writing about shortly because it would end up being way too long to put in a comment! :)

Sheri said...

I have to admit, I often get exasperated with the "angry adoptees" for imbuing the smallest action of an adoptive parent with negativity. The unfortunate and valid issues these people have with their adoptive parents do not automatically apply to ALL adoptees - as plenty of adopted adults will tell you.

YES, I gave my daughters American names. I spent countless hours in research and thought to choose for them the most meaningful and beautiful names possible - names with diminuitive forms they could use as children, and with strength they can use as adults, if they so chose. For their first middle names, I chose family names of great significance. I also kept their FULL Chinese names as their seond middle names - and these are the names they're called in Chinese School (and other times, too!!).

Every single one of my Chinese friends has an American name - and I've been asked more than once to help Chinese friends select an American name. Moreover: I have a Chinese name - given to me after lengthy consideration and close questioning by my dearest Chinese friends.

One reason I gave my girls so many names is - they can CHOOSE what they wish to be called from among all those names. For that matter, they can change their names entirely (I changed my own last name from "Smith" in my late 20's because my grandfather was never legally adopted by great-grandma's third husband, Mr. Smith, who in any case abandoned the family, and I detested the name's common-ness and the way my records and mail kept getting lost/misfiled- so my daughters and I have a different last name from my parents, even tho I've never married!). I gave my girls the best names I could - meaningful, beautiful, unusual and significant names they can be proud of... but if they want to call themselves something else, that's perfectly fine with me.

At the moment, both my daughters love their names, ALL of them, and they love having both Chinese and American names, and having special family names that tie them to our family, and they love their nicknames.

Regarding the significance of orphanage names: my eldest daughter (also from Guiping!) was given Jin XXX Ling as her name because all the kids from Guiping have "Jin" as a "family" name and all the girl children abandoned that year have "Ling" as their middle name (really a generational name, but in an unusual location). I suspect Guping assigns random "generational" names from a list as the child enters the orphanage. I've tried several times to find out why they chose XXX as my daughter's first name, but they just shrug. They had lots of babies to name, it was not significant.

My youngest child was given the first and middle names of the man who found and turned her in to the police - again, a common practice in her orphanage, and not one with any significance (as I originally thought) but simply because it was convenient - no thought required.

I tell my girls that very likely they have yet another name - known only to their birth parents. I take serious umbrage at the use of the phrase "true name" in the article you quoted - how is a randomly assigned orphanage name more "true" than a thoughfully chosen "American" name?? If anything, their "true name" is the one known only to their birth parents... a name which they may never learn.

Finally, FWIW: I actually don't have a problem with "Charity", especially for a child raised in a Mennonite family. It's a Biblical name. I'm quite sure no-one has ever thought of Cher's daughter as a "charity case"... and to be honest, that particular meaning of the word never occured to me until it was mentioned here.

"Apple" tho - now THAT word I do have a problem with when used as a name!!

Wendy said...

I want to clarify my first post, I think it is important to retain the children's birth name/orphanage name/cultural name either as their first or second name. My "thought provoking" was whether or not keeping the orphanage name was important versus the one the foster parents called them or a beautiful name from their birth country. Ex: I know of a couple of kids whose given name by the orphanage is not one that a birth parent in China would ever use--in some ways demeaning (older children it seems), so changing their name to a more culturally accepted name IMO is a better alternative.

malinda said...

Sheri writes: "I tell my girls that very likely they have yet another name - known only to their birth parents."

I meant to mention with this post a terrific book, Three Names of Me, by Mary Cummings. The three names -- the one her caregivers at the orphanage gave her, the one her adoptive parents gave her, and a third name whispered by her birth mother, unknown but treasured.

Zoe loves this book! I'd say it's probably written for the 9-12 year old crowd, but easily understood by younger kids, too.

But I think it would depend on the circumstances whether the birth parents gave the child a name. Certainly, the longer the child is with the birth parents, the more likely it is. Zoe was abandoned on the day of her birth, and it's likely that the family had a name prepared for a boy, but not a girl, since their plan would have been to abandon the baby if it were a girl. But of course we really don't know.

Sheri said...

True, Malinda, but they would have most likely at least had a "family" and a "generational" name, if not a personal name. Both my girls were also abandoned on the day of their birth. Perhaps their mother had a name in her heart.. perhaps (as in The Three Names of Me) she whispered it to them... we may never know.