We are happy to announce that Baby R’s name is…
Just kidding! Sorry, but you all are going to need to wait until the little one makes her appearance earthside to find out what her name is.
But in all seriousness, I knew that the business of naming your child was probably not something to be taken lightly. However, I didn’t know how many feelings and emotions it would bring up as a transracial adoptee parent.
It wasn’t until my husband and I began talking about what to name our daughter that I really reflected on my journey with my own name.
On my Korean birth certificate, my name reads Kwon Dam Hee. Up until this past summer when I found my birthmother, I always felt that it was my Korean name (more on that next week).
When I came to the U.S. from Korea, my adoptive parents renamed me, Shené (pronounced sheh-nay). My mom said that she and my dad heard the name at a meeting for adoptive parents and that it was a Korean name. They loved it but didn’t know how to spell it, so they settled on a French spelling, assuming that if people were familiar with René, then Shené would not be too far of a stretch pronunciation-wise. In addition to giving me a westernized middle name, they also kept Kwon as my middle name. They felt that it was important to keep that part of my Korean identity since to our knowledge, Kwon was my birth family’s surname.
I was fortunate to never be teased for my first name. There were no sing-song rhymes or jokes made up by classmates, and no one was able to make up an unpleasant nickname. I’ve been affectionately called “Shenaynay” by friends in college, but that was never something that bothered me. However, growing up having a Korean name with an unfamiliar spelling was not without its challenges.
My name is constantly butchered. Not knowing what the accent mark above the last “e” means, people often omit it, calling me “Shen” or “Sheen.” Occasionally I get called “Sheena,” or “Shauna,” and there have even been a few times when I was called “Shaniqua” (not sure how people came to that conclusion). This happens so often that up until recently, I even stopped including the accent mark over the “e” when I would write or type my name because it didn’t seem to make a difference whether it was there or not.
I distinctly remember an awards ceremony when I was in middle school where the Principal, Vice Principal, and Superintendent were tasked with calling up and handing out awards to students. I received seven awards that night, and each time I got called up, I was called a different name. No matter how many times I corrected them, not once did they get it right. At the time, I didn’t think I was actually bothered by their mispronunciations or failure to heed my corrections. I even remember joking with my parents afterwards that we all thought I was going to have an identity crisis resulting from all of the different versions.
Looking back, I realized how problematic and damaging it was that people did not take the time to properly learn my name. In fact, it wasn’t until my first appointment with my new OBGYN for this pregnancy that I even acknowledged to myself how important and special my name is.
You see, I’ve become very conditioned to situations like doctor’s offices where my name needs to be called to get my attention. I sit in the waiting room facing the door where the nurses or attendants come out, and I wait for the moment when they come through the door, look at their clipboard, pause awkwardly, and then say any name that remotely starts with “sh.” I’ve gotten so good at this that I’m usually already standing by the time I see the look on their face before they can even get out a sound. Sometimes I will bail them out and preemptively say, “It’s Shené” before they get embarrassed by saying it incorrectly. But most times, I will let them pronounce my name however they think it is pronounced, and I never bother correcting them for the duration of the appointment (and subsequent appointments) unless they ask if they’ve said it correctly.
What stood out to me at the OBGYN’s office was that the nurse asked if she said my name right (you’d be surprised at how infrequently this happens). I always squirm when people ask this because I know that when I correct them, they feel bad. Therefore, I usually try to make light of the situation. This time I corrected her and said, “It’s Shené, but it’s okay. I pretty much just answer to anything” and chuckled.
Her response was one I’d never gotten before. She said, “Don’t do that! You need to correct people. It’s your name, and it’s important that people say it correctly.”
I don’t know if it was pregnancy hormones or what, but her statement hit me like a ton of bricks and I could feel a lump in my throat as my eyes started to tear slightly.
Of course I knew that names were important and needed to be said correctly. When I was teaching, I always made sure to pronounce my students’ names correctly and to use their preferred names (whether they were their given names or their “American” names but that’s a rant for another day). It was habit to have my students introduce themselves on the first day rather than calling out roll, so they wouldn’t be embarrassed by having me mispronounce their name. I’d also make a point to repeat their name with the other students by saying, “Nice to meet you, _____” afterwards to make sure we were all saying it properly.
Why hadn’t I ever felt that way about myself? How did I get to the point where I didn’t care and just let people butcher my name? Why did I feel bad correcting them if they pronounced it incorrectly?
In addition to people mispronouncing my name, I also grew up experiencing people frequently using my name as a dipstick of sorts for guessing my race and ethnicity. I cannot even begin to count the number of times that I’ve been told, “You’re not gonna believe this, but when I first heard your name (without seeing your face), I actually thought you were Black.” I never know if I am more shocked by the fact that they actually had this thought or that they had the balls to tell me this out loud.
People are also often confused when they see my non-Asian last name and then realize that “look fully Asian” (whatever the heck that means) and not half. Their assumption is that I am mixed with an Asian mother and a white father, so when my features appear more Asian than they expect, there is always a moment of awkwardness. I again usually pick up on this and bail them out by quickly saying, “I’m adopted” before they can say anything more offensive than the look of confusion on their face.
The more that I read, reflect, and learn, the more I am acutely aware and troubled by the fact that these instances not only happen, but that these are my reactions when they do. I realize now more than ever how at the very least, they are microaggressions, and I have also started to think about what role renaming plays in transracial adoption.
Despite all of this, I do really love my first name. Although my mom jokes that during my toddler years it should have meant “raging rapids,” it actually means clear, calm, peaceful waters. A few years ago, a Korean family friend told me that in Korean, “Shené is one of the most beautiful names. It sounds so beautiful in Korean,” she said. She also told me that the way I pronounce it isn’t quite exactly the Korean-way (the inflection is slightly different), but I feel like that’s what makes it unique. It is Korean at its core, but it is also influenced by my being raised in the U.S. as a transracial adoptee.
When it came time to talk names for Baby R, all of these feelings and experiences came to the forefront of my mind. It was important to me that her name not only be a reflection of her heritage, but that it also perhaps lessened her chances of encountering some of the experiences that I had. Stay tuned for What’s In a Name? Part II to read more about her naming journey!