Does changing an agency-assigned name destroy a cultural link?

I have an international adoption (but non-transracial) related question.  We are Korean-American PAPs waiting for a referral.  If we receive a referral for a Korean child with a name given by any biological family member, we have decided to DEFINITELY keep that name for the child.  However, we initially decided that if the family refused or didn’t given a name, and the social worker or agency employee just assigned a name, we weren’t going to keep it.

I read one commentary by an adult adoptee (or maybe her AP) that she was upset that her APs changed the name given by the social worker.  She felt it was her ONLY link to her birth culture, and her APs removed it.  In our case, our child will be raised with LOTS of Korean language, culture, history, community, travel to Korea, etc. since it’s our heritage as well.  We live that way, regardless of adoption or not.  So, our child will have many links to their heritage than just a name.  Also, naming a child in Korea (at least traditionally) is important, as you pick each syllable based on meaning or family patterns.  So, rather than just a random name selected by a social worker to make identification easier, we reasoned that it would better to give a personalized Korean name to the child.

Now my question is: in this type of specific case, do you think when the child is older that he/she would appreciate, be indifferent, or resent the fact that his/her (social worker assigned) name was changed?  Thank you!

5 thoughts on “Does changing an agency-assigned name destroy a cultural link?

  1. Each case is unique.

    I think she should get (somewhere in her name) something Korean because if she returns to Korea as a gyopo she may want to have a Korean name, and that will give her a choice.

    But I totally get why the typical adoptee wouldn’t want to be totally wiped out from a culture, even if the name they got was fake, if it’s the only cultural connection they have.

    But I have to say that, although adopting within race and culture is certainly better for the child than not, what you are doing still TOTALLY CONTRIBUTES TO THE CONTINUATION OF NEGATING THE NEED TO PROVIDE OPTIONS FOR WOMEN IN KOREA TO RAISE THEIR OWN CHILDREN: It promotes the very thing you are “saving” the children from – that you can erase/hide a pregnancy with adoption perpetuates the stigma and shame of single motherhood. You are profiting by and part of a system that promotes patriarchy and the oppression of women.

    Other Korean adoptees here may feel differently, but I live in Korea and work closely with unwed mothers and know the crappy “choices” they are given. Without the trash can that adoption agencies provide, Korea would start acting like a responsible first world country that helps its own citizens. And when women have REAL options to thrive, then social condemnation will give way.

    But they’ll never get that opportunity while the west – even their own race and former countrymen! – exploits their circumstances.


    Every year, since PAP’s start to read and inform themselves about Intercountry and Transracial Adoption, the issue of name giving appears automatically. There is not much research done by Adoptees regarding this topic but in the Netherlands it became a hot topic since United Adoptees International (UAI) started questioning the legal procedure to get your ‘original’ name back in your passport.

    The only possibility to change your name was to get a official statement of danger for ‘psychological sanity’ by a psychiatrist, with a lot of paperwork and a final formality in name of the Queen to change your name into the one you once received. You can understand that this procedure made many Adoptees ponder about the question to change it or not.

    But the factual issue that more Adoptees are considering this, made the UAI wonder why it needs to be such an obstacle to get the name back you once ‘owned’. The UAI started a national procedure and requested the Ministry of Justice, backuped by some scientists, to withdraw the issue of the psychological hindrance statement, so any Adoptee would be able to change their names back into the original one. After a lot of struggle the authorities decided to skip this former psychological statement of hindrance. But the procedure still costs money and time to get this done.

    The above example shows the importance of name preservation. But also examples of those who received their name in the orphanage or by other foster care families, indicated that this is not the original family (as far things are really sure…), where moved by this possibility and we have one factual example of a Korean Adoptee who got her name by the administration of Orphanage, who changed her name back into the Korean one she received from the Oprhanage. Her motivation was to be as close to her history as possible and to withdraw the conceptual idea of to be reborn by adoption by receiving the name of her adopters.

    In the case there is a racial similarity of the Adoptee and the PAP’s the question popup once a while to give the child a new name with the argument that it is adopted within her/his own cultural descent but, the name issue is not only referring to the culture of origin but also too possible family in the name of origin. Even when the papers tell you otherwise. Since the UAI researched the paper trail (procedure) of adoption and the issue of truth of the findings of the paperwork, many times things are very doubting regarding family issues and thus also the names stated in adoptionpapers. It’s an exception when adoption papers are fully correct. Especially those cultures where the level of ‘shame and blame’ has a high stigma, information in adoptionpapers are limited to the most necessary information to relinquish the child for (intercountry) adoption.

    But when the written declarations aren’t true, than the name of the child can be also falsified or fabricated ? Yes and No. We found examples, where the name was stated as not original, and given by the institute the child was taken care of; after birth search the name seemed to be given by the mother of the child after all. So be careful to take paperwork for granted nor be easy with the issue of names. For many it is the only ‘living’ and existential referral to their origin.

    The issue if name changing (getting back your original) will become a new issue in the Adoption History for Adoptees. And PAP’s should understand, that even when you want to love an adoptive child as your own, it will never become your Own. Because it is for ever bounded to their own history. Children are not empty objects by birth but living and human beings with an imprint which will never disappear. Even when they would wish that for it themselves. Life, pain, hope and love flow trough their veins as unsolved mysteries until they reconnect with their history of being. Names cannot change this. Even more, the given names, in order of appearances have their meaning. Be careful to change it, because of the longing of the never born child.

  3. I’ll only answer the question posed in the title to the adoptive parents who proudly boast they have kept their children’s birth names, or that they are teaching them to be proud of their heritage and their birth culture, or that they are doing all kind of activities to keep their children’s birth culture.

    It’s not the name changing itself that destroys the cultural link.

    It’s the adoption itself that destroys the culture link.

    Adopting from one country to another, from one culture to another, that’s what destroys the culture.

    No matter the amount of knowledge that your children will learn about their birth culture, it will only be a knowledge learned academically or learned as any foreigner would learn about another culture.

  4. I’m not sure I like the emphasis here on what seem to be exceptional cases, especially since the secondary premise here–“what if the child is adopted by those of his or her ethnicity/cultural background?”–is often used as a battering ram against us. But this has been answered already, so I’ll move back to the main question.

    Or maybe not. The emphasis on keeping some link moving forward from the adoption is impossible, so there is no use trying. The name given by the social worker has no connection to the child’s family, if I am not mistaken, very similar to Lebanon. I was “given” by the orphanage staff a French first and middle name (implying a false father, whose first name is carried down) and a completely random Arabic word as a last name. Every effort was thus made to erase who we were via our given names. I’ve even come across adoptees with the same “last name” as mine. Bizarrely, this connects us to each other but to no one in the country. And so, carrying forward this erasure, or renaming me yet again (which my adoptive parents did) doesn’t “undo” anything. You can’t negate a negation.

    But going back to the orphanage name is not an answer, although I remember a period of time when I too took to this as a “connection”. I remember finding out that this name was useless, empty; meant nothing. This was the devastating event that led to my decision to return here. So the problem isn’t how to “carry forth” this connection; the problem is how to explain to the child that there is nothing to carry forward; that what should be so unique and identifying is in fact borrowed from a list of rotated names; a bureaucratic convention; a trifling inconsequence.

    Especially now that I realize the likelihood of finding this link grows smaller with each passing year, the sheer magnitude of what it means to rename a child through adoption, as stated by the others, takes on overwhelming significance. And so I have taken on yet another name, referred to locally as a “[political] party name” or alias, with no reference to any Lebanese family, but which has local validity, and great meaning to me, although this might be upsetting to my adoptive family.

    I would recommend trying as hard as possible to find the child’s family and real family name.

  5. I feel embarrassed for not giving this question enough thought in my reply, and am glad to read the further comments of fellow adoptees.

    I’d like to talk about crumbs. These names we are given are mere crumbs left to appease, and which the starving must accept: they are not satisfying or sustaining. Neither are they for us, but for those around us. They are labels, placeholders, tags.

    Each and every day I get stronger and happier as I work towards resolution about this thing that happened to me, but despite all that progress my lack of, and loss of, my own real name is the single biggest thing that haunts me. It’s a daily reminder of my erased identity. All my names are a lie: the Korean name assigned me by a civil servant, the number assigned me by my adoption agency, the western name – symbolically imbued with family connections of my western family – sentimentally crafted by my mother, the Korean nick-name kept by my family as a cultural link, which was based on the name assigned me by the civil servant…all lies.

    Each and every time someone asks me how I’d like to be addressed, my mind goes through chaos. Which name do I choose this time? Which of these many signifiers imposed on me is most appropriate for this situation? And no matter which name I settle on, I go through chaos when that name is spoken, as just hearing my own name rings false.

    The importance of a name can not be understated. In the children’s tale, Never Ending Story the entire survival of the only meaningful universe depends upon the recognition and speaking of the dying childlike empress’s one true name. It is the forgetting of, the obliteration of, the denial of that identity which is the pathology leading to the death of imagination and the demise of society. Our names are the summation of who we are. To deny our original identities is to deny our very essence.


    That name is everything. It is the whole world. Our truth must be acknowledged. Anything less is the great nothing that devours everything.

    I come from a long lineage of ancient people long dead and returned to the ground, and their blood courses through mine and forms my features and informs the landscape of my personality. I can not be erased. Not with your adoption, with your identity reassignment attempts, nor with your new labels. I come from somebody else’s loins, no matter how much you give me or how grateful I am.

    And the love of adoption fantasy – can that really stand up to the fact that our identities are erased/stolen/killed to make that possible? We can try to justify this, but the childlike empress and I know better.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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