Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Power of Naming

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.

God gave Adam dominion over all the creatures, and as evidence of that dominion, Adam was asked to name all the animals (and name Eve, too). This passage is frequently used by some religions to argue that women cannot be priests, and is often pointed to by feminists as proof of patriarchy – the pervasive culture of dominion of MAN over all creatures, including woman. Because the power of naming is dominion – control, authority, mastery.

I studied this passage from the Bible in college, both in theology classes and women studies classes (I was a member of the “Major of the Week Club” there for a while in college!). I’ve taught about the power of naming in my Women & the Law class and Feminist Jurisprudence seminar.

So what does this Biblical story have to tell us about naming in adoption? How about this? We name that which we wish to control. By naming, we assume a blank slate. We act like no identity exists until we name. Once the child is seen as a blank slate, it is easier to see the child as made for us, to have no purpose except to satisfy our needs. This is the significance of Adam naming the animals, and this is the danger in naming children born to us; it’s a bigger problem in naming children whose life began before we met.

There’s a softer side to naming as “dominion,” isn’t there? It's naming as claiming, about belonging instead of control, I think. For adoptive parents, naming the child is one of the first acts of claiming her as “your own.” Bestowing on the child a family name especially – naming her for your favorite aunt, using the traditional family name given to oldest sons – can be a mark of belonging. Sometimes not doing that seems odd (don’t you think it’s a little strange that the only children Angelina Jolie named after relatives are her biological children?!).

But the problem with naming as claiming is that it can seem like a rejection of all that came before, an erasure of the child’s pre-adoption identity and a rejection of birth culture and country, even a rejection of birth parents. For many adoptive children, that first name is the only link they have to their past, the only thing that they can claim as their own. Rejection of that first name is rejection of identity, isn't it? We're back to the blank slate, those animals we had no words for until Adam spoke their names.

Naming can also be a re-claiming. Feminist discussions of naming focus on reclaiming the power of naming, the power to define one’s own existence on one’s own terms. Giving a name to a condition or experience can make it real. Until women named the experience “sexual harassment,” for example, there was no language to talk about that icky thing your boss did to you at work and no way to claim any legal injury from it.

Some adoptees choose to reclaim their former names – the names given by birth parents, reflective of family, the names given by orphanage workers, reflective of home country and culture. I imagine that some adoptive parents might see this as rejection – but then perhaps the adoptive parents will be able to use that reaction to identify with the adoptee’s feeling that erasing a previous name amounted to rejection of what came before. Or if they believe their naming was a claiming and not a rejection, then they can simply see the adoptee’s action as reclaiming, not rejection.

All of this philosophical rambling actually went into my process of naming my children. I understood the power of naming in a theoretical sense, but the power of naming – the real POWER of it – became real to me when I named my children. Like many adoptive parents, I tried to strike a balance.

I gave each girl an “American” first name, names given for no other reason than that I loved them – Zoe and Maya. With these names, I claimed them as my own. Zoe means life, and Maya means a divine spark. Though I claim them, I do not claim dominion; these names recognize them as individuals in their own right. Human life with a divine spark.

I also gave each girl a French name, in recognition of their French grandmother. So they are Zoe Elisabeth and Maya Noelle. Maya’s first middle name, Noelle, is because I found out on Christmas Eve that my agency had a singles slot for me so I would be able to submit an dossier to China. With French names, I claimed them as belonging to a larger family. And more than two given names are quite common in France, so more names rather than fewer is consistent with my heritage.

My children came to me with names given to them by the orphanage director, names that followed the particular naming convention of their orphanage. When I received the referral of my younger daughter, I knew immediately she came from the same orphanage as her big sister because of the naming convention. In fact, I argued with the social worker when she told me my daughter was from a different orphanage. It turns out we were both right – Maya was found and named at one orphanage, and then transferred to another!

So my girls had a shared beginning, and they shared the surname Jin, a surname selected for all children there because the orphanage was near JinTiancum, the site of a famous peasant rebellion. Jin means gold.The girls from the orphanage during a certain period – when my oldest was there – are named Jin Something Ling. Then the director changed to a new naming convention – Jin Something Li – when my youngest was there. So my daughters were Jin YiLing and Jin BingLi. (And anyone reading from their orphanage can identify the orphanage immediately by knowing these names -- ah, a larger sisterhood).

I kept YiLing and BingLi as part of their new names. I wish I’d kept Jin, too, but at the time I didn’t know I’d have a second daughter, much less that she’d be from the same orphanage. I wish they had the name connection now, not just then, but I’d already dropped it for YiLing by the time BingLi entered our lives.

I kept their Chinese names in recognition of their heritage and their country of birth. I know some think an orphanage-given name isn’t worthy of being kept, that only with a birth parent- given name is there a reason to retain it. But I believe the connection to their heritage is important, that the connection to their orphanage is worthy.

There’s another reason I kept their Chinese names – it’s so it will be easy for them if they wish to use their Chinese names exclusively. If they wish to reclaim their birth country, their heritage, their identity in that way, then I’ve at least made it quite possible for them to do so. They do use their Chinese names at times – Zoe was exclusively Jin YiLing at her kindergarten when we lived in China for five months, and they both use their Chinese names at times at Chinese School. (Zoe’s power of naming causes her to write the Chinese characters for her name in permanent marker on all sorts of things she shouldn’t!)

So my daughters are Zoe Elisabeth YiLing and Maya Noelle BingLi. Named and claimed in love and belonging. No blank slates, their heritage reclaimed in that given and retained Chinese name.

NAMES -- the topic of this month's blog carnival at Grown in My Heart. Go there to read other takes on the topic, and blog your own post about names and go there to link it. I've posted before about naming -- What's In a Name? and Naming (about "milk names" in China).


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post...your daughters' names are lovely.

Joanne said...

Love this post :) Especially since we have SO much in common. They must have change the "Yi" to "Yu" along the way, because Mia is "Jin Yu Dan" you know why? Also, I didn't know "Jin" means "gold" - thanks, I can add that to Mia's lifebook :) I just love your blog :)
P.S. I went private, if you want an invite, just email me:

Victoria said...

Just a brief comment to Joanne. "Jin" has multiple meanings as do many Chinese words. My daughter has Jin in her name but the translation we were given is "half a kilogram" (like a unit of measurement). It is a different character than the jin that means gold.

pickel said...

exactly why we kept our boys' names...beautiful post.

Bukimom said...

We had originally intended to keep our daughter's orphanage name as her middle name, but once we found out what it was, many of our Chinese friends expressed a dislike for it. It was, like many orphanage names, derived from a surname unique to the year of entry at that orphanage, a word for the city, and a given name supplied by the orphanage workers. The problem was that together they didn't have a very harmonious sound, according to our friends.

In China, naming is a really big deal, with many factors taken into account, including meaning of the characters and the nuances of how they interact with each other, both in terms of meaning and sound.

So, still wanting our daughter to have a Chinese middle name, we searched and searched through a Chinese naming book, and ran many possible selections by our Chinese friends to get their reaction.

Finally we came up with one that they liked, "Ai Ming," one that didn't sound too masculine and didn't have a possibly undesired negative connotation. The characters mean "love" and "light." The "Ming" character is special because she shares it with her Japanese American a-father. It is a part of his name, too, though pronounced differently in Japanese.

I guess we were lucky to have so many Chinese friends to get input from (a side benefit of working with international students).

J said...

My daughter has a long name that has a lot of history and significance, and will give her choices as she gets older. I'm not going to say what her actual names are here, b/c I keep that private on my blog. I call her Z, and you'll see why!

Her first name is my husband's grandmother's name. He was the only child of a single working mom, and his grandmother played a very important role in his childhood. It also happens to be a beautiful name that I've always loved. We generally call her by an abbreviation of this name.

Her second name was my grandmother's name. My grandmother adored children, and sadly passed away a mere month before we received the referral for our daughter. I was still deeply mourning her at that time, and knew that she would have been delighted with our new daughter, so we added her name to my daughter's name.

My daughter's third name is the name she was given in the orphanage, ZhiYi. It's why she's Z on the blog. I couldn't imagine taking this name away from her, but we thought it was hard for American tongues to pronounce. I often call her by this name around the house, and I would be thrilled if some day she wanted to use it.

malinda said...

I love these stories about what and how you named your children, keep 'em coming!

Bukimom, I especially love that you were able to pick out such a beautiful name to honor your daughter's heritage! What a blessing to have Chinese friends to help out.

Wendy said...

Great post.

M's name is just a name I loved, actually I had it with another name before seeing her face and immediately dropped the second because it so did not fit her personality. Her middle name (which would have been third name) is her orphanage name (we dropped the Jin too) which is beauitful and it's meaning fits the circumstances and her perfectly.
If only I would have known what her foster family had called her prior to the paperwork! I would have included it too, and we used that name for many months until she said she didn't want that name anymore.
If we would have lived in a more diverse area from the get go we would have kept her Chinese name as her first name but knew the people around here would have failed it miserably! Turns out they fail her "American" name too! Yikes.
She knows that she can choose whichever name she wants at any time and has chosen to have different people call her differnt things, although recently she said when she is a grown-up she is switching her name to Nicole! Uh...I don't know why--5 year olds.
Names are powerful and we have to acknowledge that, they identify us before we are even introduced--maybe falsely, maybe not.
The options for naming are endless, I just think we have to be open for what our children want to be called.

Love for Lilly Yin said...

My daughters sir name was also Jin. Was she adopted from JinHua SWI? Or is there another orphanage with the same sir name? I know very, very few children are adopted from her area.

Michele said...

We named our daughter Lily after my maternal grandmother who had a particular affection for China and spent time there during the 1980's. For her middle name it was always in our plan to retain her Chinese name, which turned out to be a lovely compliment to her English name. The surprise came several months upon returning home we received news from the SWI that our daughter's nickname had been LiLi - so while we thought WE had named her, it actual had been her name long before we became her parents and we love that!

Anonymous said...

i wish that my parents would have had the same insight as you as adoptive parents. they hid a lot of my 'given' traits from me i feel as a way to reject my heritage and make me theirs. i never knew what my korean name was until i found and rummaged through my adoption papers when i was 14 (which by the way i got in a lot trouble for!). i also discovered later on that my mom picked out my name 'kim' in a weak attempt to connect me to my heritage, only because it sounded 'asian'. it was obviously a half-hearted attempt at that considering that my full first name is kimberlee. btw, she also spelled it with an 'lee' at the end in another attempt to make it seem more asian.

it's really nice to know that there are adoptive parents like you, that know the importance of holding onto that connection and encouraging exploration of it. i wish my parents had done the same for me.

SB said...

We kept our 5 year old daughters full Chinese name as her middle name, and gave her an English first name.

Most everyone calls her by her English name, I and her Chinese teacher always call her by her Chinese nickname(which I found out on the day we met her), our son calls her "meimei" (little sister), and sometimes we call her by her full Chinese name so she remembers it. She actually responds to all these as well.

Our biggest issue right now is our son's friends have been calling her "meimei" too as they think that is her name and he doesn't let them know what it means.

I'm sure curious what name she'll want settle on when she is older, or maybe she'll always want mulitple names.

travelmom and more said...

This is a great post, thanks for sharing.
We named our daughter Sun which sounds Asian but is her English name, my name is Dawn and my husband is Sol (Sun in Spanish) so the theme was a given. I love the idea of a strong symbol for a young woman. I kept part of her orphanage name for her middle name and she now uses this name at school (she is in a Chinese language pre-school). The second part of her Chinese name was her village and fairly strange for a person's name in Chinese so we didn't keep it. Her teachers gave her a random Chinese name and we asked them to use her given Chinese name so as not to add more names to the mix even though they said it was too hard for her to learn to write until she is older. I also gave my daughter my maternal maiden name, which is my last name as well as my husband's name. In Latin cultures they often give children both the mother's and father's family name, so stole this tradition. We call her SunSun most of the time; in the area our daughter is from they doubled all of the girl's names which I think is an affectionate thing to do with little girls.

Diane said...

Melinda- The Biblical history was most interesting! Thanks for this.

SB- In Chinese culture it is very appropriate for non-family members to use the affection term Mei Mei for little girls. During our trips to China our youngest daughter was often addressed by strangers as Mei Mei. Here we have a Cantonese gentleman friend who calls my youngest Moi Moi- the Cantonese version of little sister.

Mama King said...

Wow, I found your post so interesting. It gives me a lot to think about. Thank you.

Joanna B said...

Your daughter's names are beautiful! I love what you said about your renaming them being a part of "claiming" them. I also love that they have a first name picked by you as well as a french and a chinese middle name. I am looking forward to checking out the rest of your blog!

Anonymous said...

Both of my girls are named after my grandmothers. Margaret was my grandmothers middle name. Meredith is a combination of Mary (my mother's middle name and her grandmother's name) and Edith (my other grandmother's name). I used all or part of the orphanage name for their middle names. So, like Malinda, their names represent connections to both their adoptive ancestors and their heritage. As I was thinking about names just now, it occurred to me that they ought to learn to write the characters of their Chinese names. I think I will ask our tutor to help them with that (assuming they want to do that).

Sheri said...

As you know, Malinda, my oldest daughter comes from the same SWI as your girls. I kept her full name, all three characters, as part of her name. Interestingly, she has started writing her Chinese name on all her school papers - in calligraphy!! - in addition to her given nickname. They're in Chinese school as I type this - their progress is a continuous source of amazement and yes, joy, to me!!