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The Fallacy of Choice In Names

June 14, 2011

EDIT: Thought I should note I loved my Canadian name as a child, well into my teenage years. Yes, I loved it, because it was unique and uncommon and I felt it identified me quite well. As of recent years, I’ve felt that name no longer solely fits me like it once did, just like I feel my Chinese does not solely belong to me.


Whenever I’ve talked about wanting to change my name (legally, as in, have it recognizable under the law, not just some far-off citizenship), I get the following responses:

“So what are you waiting for? You define who you are. Change your name if that’s what you want. It’s your choice.”


It’s my choice.

As long as I can withstand the amount of backlash that would come up against me. The surprise and confusion from friends. The outrage from those who just view it as “abandonment.” The hurt and grief from [my?] adoptive parents. The constant reminders of “you’re not really Chinese because you were raised by Canadians!” or “You can’t speak Chinese, that name doesn’t suit you.”

So physically it’s my choice. Emotionally, however, that one move could potentially alienate a ton of people who only know (and see me) as my Canadian upbringing. See, they know I was born to a Chinese man and woman over in “that Eastern place.” But they don’t see me as being of them. They see me, having been raised by my Canadian parents, as being of my adoptive parents’ upbringing.

Having an ethnic legalized name brings that all up to the forefront and smacks it into everyone’s faces.


Then there is the whole: “If my child wants to change their name when they’re older, I’d support them. It’ll be their choice.”

Sounds endearing. Sounds supportive. Except the whole set-up in adoption is designed so that it’s a fallacy of choice as dictated by government officials, social workers and adoptive parents. The system is designed to wipe the background of the adoptee and transfer all legal and ethnic rights to the adoptive parents. Before you argue semantics about how we’re all part of the human race and connected to the same ancestors – an adoptee cannot legally have two sets of parents. Adoption is not set up for a legal balance. Therefore, that doesn’t really leave much of a choice.

My own parents left my Chinese name as a middle name. But it’s quite clear they don’t see me as fitting that name. Or maybe they do, I don’t know. It’s a little like saying “Oh, I know you were born in China, but I don’t really think of you in that way.”


Because the adoptee is being raised in another country. Henceforth, I am not Mei-Ling to my parents. I am borne of another set of parents, but my adoptive parents don’t use my Chinese name. They don’t see me that way because they raised me to be Canadian.

Resist Racism once talked about it here:

Let’s be perfectly clear here:  They aren’t giving the child a choice.  First, there is a power differential.  But in addition, if they really were going to give the kid a choice, they’d leave the name alone. But the paperwork reveals the parents’ choice:  The new name.

How many adoptive parents do you know who kept their child’s name in its original form?  I don’t know any.  How many kept their personal names?  I know just a few.

Undoubtedly someone will read this and think:

“Well why haven’t you changed your name back yet? If you feel so strongly about it, then do it!”

Resist Racism sums it up nicely here:

“She can change her name back any time she wants” = she’ll have to pay money to do it after a time when everyone has known her by the name we gave her, and despite what we say, she will have to soothe over our hurt feelings in the process.

If you’re an adoptive parent and reading this, don’t sit there and lie and tell me it wouldn’t hurt you. You gave your child an American name out of pride and love. If that child-turned-adult rejected that name and switched to their birth name, yes, it would be both legal and semantic rejection.

Guilt is a powerful way to discourage something.

You don’t have to say anything.

We know. We already know. We know if we legally reclaim our names it’s the same as rejecting you and the symbolism in our American names.

Because you raised us and you are our parents too.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2011 11:08 pm

    Your post reminded me of a post I have been meaning to write for a while, so thanks for that. I know I can’t speak for other adoptive parents, but I honestly hope my daughter chooses the names that are most comfortable for her and I am happy to pay the legal expenses and manage the paperwork necessary for a legal name change if she chooses that. I know that adoptees often feel they have to balance their parents feelings with their own desires, but if I do my job right, my daughter will know I am firmly on the side of her happiness. It doesn’t matter if that means changing her name or moving to China or wherever life may lead her. No guilt necessary.

  2. June 15, 2011 12:21 am

    In Australia, if you are adopting internationally (at the moment, I believe China and Ethiopia are the only two countries available), you are usually required to keep the child’s first name – though you can of course add extra names.

  3. Sheri M permalink
    June 15, 2011 1:03 am

    A number of countries prohibit the changing of names of internationally adopted kids: Australia, for example. I know many kids whose aparents didn’t change their orphanage names. I kept my kids orphanage names and gave them additional names – deliberately, so they would have choices, come the day. Choices are GOOD.

    Bottom line though: Infants never get to choose.
    Grownups choose for infants and young children.
    Grownups can also choose for themselves.
    Women do it all the time, in fact. A friend is going through her fourth divorce.
    And yes, she’s changing her middle and last names, AGAIN. She swears it’s for the last time – and she’s never gone back to her birth name, cuz that’s the worst of the batch and anyhow, her dad abandoned the family when she was four years old, and never paid child support, so why should she keep his name?

    I seriously didn’t like my name, got tired of waiting for Mr. Right, and changed my name when I was 28.
    No big deal – just persistence, especially because I did it the hard (read: free) way. Takes longer, but not impossible (in the USA).
    Now that I’m in my 5th decade, I realize it’s not nearly as important as I thought it was.
    I’m still ME, regardless of label.

    Maturity has its benefits: looking back I see such a lot of unnecessary angst and tilting at windmills!!

    • Mei-Ling permalink*
      June 15, 2011 10:34 am

      Grownups choose for infants and young children.

      Yeah, but adoption adds a birth family to the mix. There’s an extra layer in a family who kept their children and the grown children decide to change their names, and an adoptive family whose children have a physical birth family they have contact with. Also, adoptees are seen as perpetual children.

      Women do it all the time, in fact. A friend is going through her fourth divorce.

      That’s an analogy beside the point – people are expected to change their names in divorce.

    • Lika permalink
      June 15, 2011 2:33 pm

      I don’t think the issue is so much the name change here. I know people change their names all the time. I think the issues is having to justify a name change. No one will question why a woman who goes through a divorce is changing her last name. People also don’t question why a Chinese Canadian will either change or add an English name to her Chinese one.

      It’s different to take back a Chinese name, especially when your legal family isn’t Chinese. That is harder to justify. It’s not the same as my siblings adding English names to their Chinese names. People will wonder if that means that the adoptee doesn’t care about their Western family/culture.

      I do know of Chinese women who married white men and took on their last name so it is possible to have names like Peiyi Wong-Wiley, but I’d think having to explain the Wiley part of the name came from a marriage isn’t the same as having to explain the Wiley part of a name came from being adopted. People’s perception of your “Asian authentic-ness” so to speak, and other parts of your identity doesn’t change when they find out you married a non-Asian, or if it does, they don’t change as much as if they find out that you were raised by non-Asians. Perceptions change when people find out one is adopted, and then one has to justify the nth all sorts of decisions that non-adopted people don’t have to.

  4. Psychobabbler permalink
    June 15, 2011 12:48 pm

    Mei-Ling, I’ve been sitting with this since I first read your post last night, and have excavated everything forwards and backwards, and I keep coming to the same answer:

    It wouldn’t hurt me, and I’m not lying.

    Are there things that represent my investment in my child that would hurt me if my child chose an alternate “path?’ Yes. But his name isn’t one of them.

    Perhaps it has to do with us going into naming fully recognizing and anticipating that he might want to use a different name at a later time in his life. Perhaps it has to do with a history of flexibility around naming, nicknaming, and renaming in both my husband’s and my families. Perhaps it has to do with me having gone through my own journey in deciding what I wanted my surname to be after I got married (which had nothing to do with rejecting them and everything to do with defining me), and my own journey of having changed one of the given names my parents bestowed on me (which also had nothing to do with rejecting them, and everything to do with defining me).

    Would it be awkward to get used to calling my child by a different name? Absolutely. But would it be hurtful? No.

    • Mei-Ling permalink*
      June 15, 2011 2:29 pm

      I have seen a lot of quotes that say “I would totally support my child to change his/her name when they’re older.” I don’t know if you read the links I used, but this is what Resist Racism said:

      “She can change her name back any time she wants” = she’ll have to pay money to do it after a time when everyone has known her by the name we gave her, and despite what we say, she will have to soothe over our hurt feelings in the process.

      How many adoptive parents kept the original name, at the very least, as a given name? Not a middle name – a given name. I’d wager very, very few. Why? Because the child is legally transferred as theirs. Therefore, that is why I call it a fallacy. It’s not a “true” choice because the child is recognized as being “of” the adoptive parents.

  5. June 16, 2011 5:26 pm

    This is something that I have put a lot of thought into. And I will say with 100% truthfulness that it would not be any kind of an issue for me if my kids decide to change their names. We’ve discussed it from time to time. It will be interesting to see if it becomes reality.

    Their Korean names are their middle names. We believed that this was the best way we could demonstrate to them, not the rest of the world, that we treasured their past but welcomed them into our family in the present. And since many Korean American friends also have non-Korean first names, they have not expressed any discomfort with this.

    I’m just guessing, but if they would have any discomfort, it would be with our surname, which is decidedly not Korean. They’ve never expressed it, and haven’t shown much interest in changing their names when we’ve brought it up, but I can’t imagine having a Korean last name wouldn’t have crossed their minds at some point.

    As for the fees: wouldn’t cross my mind to make them pay for that if they wanted to make the change.

  6. Cathy permalink
    June 17, 2011 12:12 am

    We kept our children’s first names as first names. That’s all they had when we adopted them. Many years later when we finally met their first mothers, we discovered that their names had been chosen by their mums for very specific and personal reasons. Their gift to the children they could not raise and a vital, everlasting link.

  7. June 20, 2011 8:02 pm

    So we are about to adopt. Lets just say I want to do whats best for my child and I don’t have the arrogance to want to name my child something American and cool (like apple blythe).

    Do I just leave the name the orphanage gave her and add my last name?

    Just trying to figure out what the “right” answer is in this situation??

  8. Allison Lassieur permalink
    July 21, 2011 11:07 am


    I just found your blog through a link on another site. I actually have a question rather than a comment. How do you feel that your Chinese name was not (I’m assuming) the name given to you by your biological parents, but rather assigned to you by orphanage staff? Does this matter at all? I’m asking because my husband and I struggled with this when we adopted our daughter last summer. The Chinese name she was given was very cold and administrative, similar to a number. We talked to several Chinese friends who told us this name was bad. We had intended to keep it as her given name but then asked ourselves if it would be the right thing to do. Ultimately we decided to keep her full Chinese name as her middle name, we reasoned that if/when she ever decided to use it it would be her legal name already. I guess what I’m saying is that we thought about this a great deal and tried to do the right thing for our daughter. And I honestly wouldn’t mind if she eventually chose to use it.


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