Saturday, July 27, 2013

Day 27: Naming

What would we name the boy in the photo? The 7-year-old in China who was about to become our son. This was one of the hardest decisions we made in our older child adoption.

He wasn't a baby. We had biological children who were seven and eight, and we couldn't help but think how confusing and upsetting and disorienting it would be for them if they suddenly had to change names.

Names aren't neutral. So much of our personal identity is tied to our name.

We broached the subject with our case worker at the adoption agency -- a Chinese American lady. She seemed alarmed. "All these children expect to get American names. He'll be disappointed if you keep his Chinese name." And then she added, "Even Chinese adults who immigrate to the States take American names. Their Chinese names are too difficult for people to say."

Part of me felt relieved by her answer. It would be easier to give him an American name. Even though we'd repeatedly asked how to pronounce his name, it was so foreign to us that we were never quite sure if we were saying it right or not.

It was suggested more than once that we keep part of his Chinese name as his middle name. But which part? His Chinese name consisted of three Chinese characters. Which part would be the most meaningful to him? Seems silly now, but we really didn't know for sure.

So when we traveled to China to adopt Wenxin, we gave him an American first, middle, and last name. We called him his Chinese name in the beginning, and then, while still in China, we introduced his American name through our interpreter. The plan was to gradually transition from calling him his Chinese name to using his American name all the time.

Wenxin, however, felt strongly about keeping his Chinese name. Every time we mentioned his American name he said, "No."  Wenxin he was, and Wenxin he would remain. It felt right to us.

As you read the rest of what I say, please remember that we didn't arrive at the decision to keep his Chinese name out of a firm conviction that it would be wrong to change his name. Quite the opposite. We actually gave him an American name and had every intention of using it. We had a change of heart, however, as we got to know our new son.

"But aren't you worried that people won't be able to say it?"

No, not really.

If you've only seen Wenxin's name in print, you are probably mispronouncing it.  The "x" throws people off.  His name is pronounced "Wen Sheen,"  just like the actor, Charlie Sheen.  Once we say that, everyone gets it. From time to time, people want to say, "Wen Ching," because that "ch" sound seems Chinese to them. But so far, the little bit of effort it takes to teach everyone to pronounce his name correctly seems 100% worth it.

You know, the America of today is a nation of many ethnicities and many ethnic names.  We have a president named Barack Obama.  Probably, most Americans had never met a "Barack" before President Obama, but we all learned to pronounce his name correctly. Thank you, President Obama, for not changing your name to something that would be more comfy for us all.

Almost three years later, all our friends and family (well, most of them) have learned to pronounce Wenxin's name correctly. When he plays soccer, you can hear parents all up and down the sidelines yelling, "Go Wenxin!"

Older children adopted internationally have almost all their choices taken from them. They have to accept new parents, move to a new country and learn a new language -- whether they like it or not.  He was almost eight years old.  We simply couldn't take his name as well.

I've heard adoptive parents say that naming their new child is an important part of "claiming" them as their own. Naming is something your parent does for you. I get that.

I wonder, however, if we should rethink this issue. Does it have to be that way? Should getting new parents always mean getting a new name?

If Mike and I died, and someone else stepped in to finish raising Nathan, Julia, Wenxin, and Katherine, would I want that person to change their names? What if they moved to a different country? Would that make a difference?

Does the age of the child or the child's preference matter?

I don't have definite answers to these questions, and I realize that I'm in the minority. Most adoptive parents rename their kids. Especially when the kids have names that are hard to pronounce.

All I'm suggesting is that we think about it carefully. Because your name is really important. It's strongly tied to who you are.

I'd love to know what you think about this one. If you've been reading quietly without speaking up, now would be a great time to join the conversation. There are no wrong answers or stupid questions, so please leave a comment.

Also, here's another quick way you can help. Would you tweet this post or share it on Facebook or with your online adoption group? I'd love to invite more people into the conversation, and you are key to spreading the word. Thank you.

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Shared at Ni Hao Y'all.


  1. I think it's great that you respected his wishes. Our kids were 3, 2, and 1 at adoption, so they didn't convey any opinions. But we kept part of their Chinese names as middle names. Maybe they'll use them when they go to Chinese school.

  2. Good for him being firm about keeping his name


  3. Interresting. I think he was a smart boy to keep his name :)

  4. We adopted a 6 year old from China. He was very firm in wanting an American name. Made me a bit sad as I liked his Chinese name, we still kept it for his middle name.

    1. I like it that you honored your son's wishes.

  5. we're adopting a 4-year-old boy from Africa - I'm about a month away from Traveling! ee! anyway, we ARE changing his name. His curent name is Muslim, and his background has deep evil ties, and, as Christians, we just can't feel right about keeping it. So, changing it is! I prayed a ton and thought a ton, but it just didn't feel right to keep a solidly muslim (and hard to pronounce!) name.

    1. Anna - this is completely my opinion, and I have never adopted. But, to me it would seem the loving thing that would most honor Jesus would be to cherish your new son. Whatever will make his transition the best, and will allow him to see your love for him and eventually God's love for him the brightest would be the best. Maybe he'd love a new name, maybe it will make him feel the most loved and cherished and wanted. But, maybe not. He will be in a huge upheaval, new country, new parents, new lifestyle, new everything... and perhaps he will need the security of his name. I know he is young, so it might not even be an issue, but to me it seems like it would be easy for him to hear (even though this might not be what you are saying) "Son, the name you have had since birth doesn't fit the vision we have for you, and we only want and accept you if you have a new name that we can accept." A name doesn't make someone more or less loved by Jesus. :) I really hope that does not sound harsh. I am trying to be gentle and loving, but as I started to click away from this page I just felt a strong pull to reply. Hopefully this comes across in a loving way and not in a pushy angry way.

  6. I love that you allowed Wenxin to keep his Chineses name. You were so flexible and that is a wonderful parenting skill. For older children, it is one of the few things they "own" when they go to their new families. It is great that you found a way for others to remember the pronunciation. Best wishes to you and your family.

  7. Interesting perspective from adult adoptee:

  8. I love how you were flexible and sensitive to your son's wishes. By respecting his desire to keep his name you empowered him to have control over something important to him. It really demonstrated love and respect. We are waiting on a match for a little girl from China. We have chosen a name for her. As Christians we want to follow God's example of how he gave new names when he redirected a person's life such as Abraham, Sarah, Peter and Paul. It was a symbol of change. We feel the same about choosing a new name for our daughter--that it will be a symbol of her identifying with being connected to our family. I am so glad to read your post though and realize that we need to be sensitive to her reaction and be prepared if she feels uncomfortable. There are so many unknowns on this side of the adoption that I am thankful for gleaning from those who have gone before us!


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