Monday, March 30, 2009

What's in a Name?

I recently read a blog about a Korean adoptee changing their name back to their Korean name. I wondered why in the world would someone change their name back? For me, after 23 years since my name was changed to English (I can somewhat remember that court proceeding) I can't imagine changing it back and using my previous name "Yang Woon Hee".

However, in the last couple of months I have been faced with a new question that I have never been asked before (in my 23 previous years of growing up in the US). When I think about it, I don't know why I have never been asked this question before in my life. The question is very rude, and hard to deal with sometimes. Because about the only way to politely respond it is to tell some stranger that you are adopted (Which I don't always want to divulge).

The question is usually phrased in the following ways:
"I don't picture you as a Spalding"
"You don't seem to match your last name"

My most recent occurance was last night when I was checking into my hotel in Houston (I travel a lot for my work). The girl was very friendly and was making small talk as I was checking in, when she said "I didn't picture you with your last name". I just replied "I was adopted." As I replied you could see her face drain of color as she just realized what she had said. She apologize profusely over and over. I actually felt bad for her, because I knew that she didn't mean it in any mean way, but was just trying to be friendly.

I had this discussion with my Korean tutor last week about last names. In Korea, people can use their last names and trace the family lines for hundreds and hundreds of years. She asked me how Americans got their last names. I explained that for most Americans, you can tell what ancestory they came from. How you can tell if someone had German heritage or French heritage based on their last names. This is why I didn't take offense when the Hotel clerk as me this question. Even though it was hard for me to "swallow" and to respond, I don't fault her. I would thoroughly agree that my looks do not match my last name.

In the last couple of weeks, I have really thought about this issue because I have never faced it before. When I thought about it, I was quite amazed that this was not an issue that I had to face before(or maybe it was something that I don't recall having to face, but I know I have been asked these types of questions within the last 10 years!). After being asked this question several times in the last couple of weeks, the question of having a Korean last name has really come back in my mind.

Ironically, at Sunday School class at church the discussion of names came up. Talking about how most Asians pick an English first name because it is too difficult for Americans to pronounce their first names properly. My church is predominantly Asian, and on this particular day, the only caucasion was the teacher and the rest of us were all Korean! So we went around telling each other our Korean names. The only difference was everyone else had Korean last names: Kang, Chun, Lee, and Hwang. Our teacher's last name was Calhoun and my last name of Spalding were both of Scottish decent.

Is it important that your looks match your last name? I think it makes a little bit more of a difference for a male than a female because traditionally the males carry on the family names (even in Korean culture). So its not too unusually to see an Asian woman who has a non-Asian name because people just assume she married a non-Asian. However, most men never change their family name. So if you have an non-Asian last name it is very unusual and most people don't understand how a male can have a non-Asian last name.

I doubt I would ever go to court and change my name on my own. I know growing up and even now I don't have any particular strong ties to my family name. I've always openly and sub-consciously been open to the idea of changing my last name. I know I was always fascinated with how it was always the woman who changed their last name to match their husbands. I have always thought that I would be open to taking my wife's name if I ever got married, if that was what she would rather have. I think its important for a married couple ot have the same family name, and I personally wouldn't care if its mine or my wife's. In particular, if I were to marry an Asian girl I could understand wanting to keep an Asian last name, to avoid confusions with having a non-Asian last name.


  1. I was thinking of doing that when I go back.

    Maybe one day when I'm sufficiently fluent enough, I'll feel as though I've earned it back. :\

  2. interesting.

    this reminded me that my piano teacher (korean) married an adopted korean and changed her korean last name to the guy's english last name. Kids therefore, were given "american" last names.

  3. Just a few random opinions... Personally, I don't really enjoy the fact that Koreans feel like they need to adopt an American name... Americans should just learn how to pronounce foreign names. :) Is it important that your looks match your last name? I don't believe so. Of course, it's all a matter of personal preference and how connected you are with it. I also don't think it's necessarily important for a husband and wife to carry the same name. Sure, you might have to do some explaining from time to time, but I wouldn't mind keeping my last name... :)

  4. Mei Ling,
    I don't think you should feel the need to "earn it back", you should have whatever last name you want :)

    Unfortunately I think they change their name because they get tired of having to explain how to pronounce their name and having to hear people "butcher" their names all the time would get tiring.

    A person's name has a lot to do with themselves and their culture. While Americans have recently taken names a lot lighter, there is significance to one's names and family names. Family names used to tell what area you were from and what your occupation was.

    The reason it is a "bigger deal" for adoptees is that it brings up a separate issue. Of being put into a situation where you have to explain that you are adopted to total strangers. I would have no problems telling people that my last name was from my spouse after I got married. But to tell a total stranger that your last name was because you were adopted is a very private thing. Not very enjoyable to do. There is no polite alternative, you can't really say "its none of your business" and remain

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  6. Although I understand the reasons of name change, I agree with Cheri that Koreans shouldn't feel the need to. I know personally for me, I was incredibly happy my parents (I am adopted) kept most of my Korean name (used as my first and middle name, last name is American--well actually Russian but eventually shortened so now it looks French) It really gives me a sense of heritage.

    If you think explaining names are bad, it's worse explaining that you are adopted. Once,when I was young, we were at some restaurant, and the waitress said what a pretty little girl I was, and then proceeded to ask my parents if they were babysitting. We always laugh at this story, because at the time, my mother worked for the visually handicapped.

  7. Hi Dae!
    Thanks for reading my blog.

    I think you might have misunderstood my article a little bit.

    The purpose of this article was to explain how my Scottish/Irish last name almost "forces" me to explain that I am adopted. Since you are adopted, I am sure you share this experience (particularly if you have the same last name as your adoptive parents).

    I am also not saying that Koreans should change their names. I personally really like it when Koreans keep their names. I think they sound so much better than American names! LOL

  8. I love that you would be willing to take your future wife's surname. This was an interesting reflection to read. It just never occurred to me before about matching your surname? I put so much thought into my girls' first and middle names (they retain their Chinese names in the middle) but have never given a thought to our surname. I retained my maiden name and added my husband's surname but NOBODY ever incorporates my maiden name when addressing me. Even my own family. Hmmm.