The story behind my kids’ Chinese names…if I had a do-over

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What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

This quote from Romeo and Juliet pops into my head every time I get drawn into a discussion on names. What the hell does that even mean? I guess this is probably the time where I admit that I got a “D” in Freshman English and I've never been a great fan of Shakespeare…unless Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love count…and no, I realize that probably does not count at all.

So now that I've convinced everyone that I'm an uncultured heathen, back to names. I think one of the most important tasks of parenting is choosing a child's name. Names are permanent…or not easily changed, anyway. A name will make you stand out or fit in. It's part of your introduction and how you present yourself to the world.

Today, I will not get on my soapbox about “new age” kid names or “nontraditional spellings,” although believe me, people, I have plenty to say on those subjects.

But, I'll save that for another day.

Okay, just one: Airwrecka should not be used as an alternative spelling for Erica or Erika. Eryka if you must but Airwrecka? Just no.

Anyway. Choosing a name for an adopted child may present an extra layer of challenge. What if the kid already has a name? An adoptee's feeling on how they're named and if their name is changed may (or may not) be a complicated issue. I don't feel I can speak intelligently on that…mostly because there's no cookie cutter answer and I'm not an adoptee. There are all kinds of ways to look at this.

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But…I can tell you how my family chose the names for our adopted sons, how we feel about our decision and the way ahead.

In China, people usually have three names – first, middle last, just as most Americans do – but the order which they're written is a little different. For example:

American/Western: Kirsten Jill Robbins (I go by my middle name…bonus factoid about me.)

If I were Chinese: Robbins Kirsten Jill. Acquaintances would call me Kirstenjill or Mrs. Robbins, depending on how formal the relationship was. Good friends or my parents might refer to me as Jill-Jill. Interesting, huh? And no…don't start calling me Jill-Jill.

The story behind our kids' Chinese names - if I had a do-over|Ripped Jeans and Bifocals|Adoption blogs|adoption ideas|China adoption blogs|@JillinIL

Children who are adopted from China start their lives as orphans…abandoned. That's a harsh way to put it, but the reality is harsh. Babies or young children are left in public places… bus stations, near a hospital…usually, spots where they'll be found safely. Unless that child is old enough to know their full name, they're issued a new one by the government.

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I am not an expert on how names are assigned or who does the naming. I imagine it varies. Once upon a time, the chosen name revealed orphan status. I imagine this would be something like using Jane Doe and John Doe. The United States doesn't have the same numbers of abandoned children as China does (and also not the population density) but imagine if every orphan had to bear the name of Jane or John…that would be a stigma they'd carry for the rest of their life. Thankfully the rules in China have changed. Orphans are assigned “common” names from an approved list.

Most of the kids in my son Zack's orphanage had the last name of Dang. My son Kyle's last name was Wu, although many of the older kids in his orphanage were Mings. I'm not sure of the science or rotation that goes into this…maybe it's random, who knows?

Both of my kids have their Chinese first and middle names combined as their American middle names. Dang Ying Mao is now Zachary Yingmao and Wu Cheng Jin is now Kyle Chengjin (which is a mouthful!)

Why did we do this?

With Zack, we told ourselves we were doing this to “preserve his heritage” and pretty much, because all the other parents who were adopting kids from China were doing the same thing for the same reason. I am not generally a follow the herd girl but we had no idea what the hell were doing with our first adoption and Zachary Yingmao? Sure, I could picture myself standing on the porch yelling that name.

I've heard (and read) many different explanations of what my kids' names mean: Ying Mao is clever cat and Cheng Jin is honest gold…as in “good as gold” not the color. Some days I think this is spot on and sometimes it makes me laugh…you know, like you'd kind of smirk at a girl name Grace when she trips and falls. Or is it only me that does that?

We gave Kyle the middle name of Chenjin because we used Yingmao with Zack. We'd began to regret choosing to incorporate the Chinese names with Zack but ended up doing so with Kyle so they'd be “the same.”

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If we could have a do-over, we'd probably have opted to give them American middle names, perhaps even use a portion of my husband's name. This doesn't mean we don't respect their heritage…their beginnings are in China and that won't change.
We share what we know of their lives before us (which is not much) and we'll give them the benefit of our memories of our time spent in their birth country. We have pictures, videos, souvenirs and funny stories. We look for diversity in the books they read and try incorporate tales of China and adoption stories when we can.

While their pasts are not forgotten and will be honored in whatever way we figure out to be appropriate and comfortable for us, they are American children now. They eat macaroni and cheese and watch Sponge Bob…and yeah…I let that happen. I'm not expecting the mother of the year trophy to show up in my mailbox and it gives me 20 minutes of peace. Judge if you want.
Zack is starting to “twang” some of his words like a true Texan. When I try to pull out I Love You Like Crazy Cakes (a wonderful book about China adoption) they usually ask for Dr. Seuss instead.

My kids names are uniquely their own. Although I can stand here and say I probably would have made different choices if I could rewind things, who really knows?

The other day I was rushing through the house trying to do something…I don't remember what. Zack was hollering after me, trying to get my attention for some reason…again, I don't remember why. When he couldn't get my attention, he stood at the bottom of our stairs and yelled “Mommy Yingmao Robbins, you get down here right now!” That part I do remember.

I know some people will see my attitude as a potential for my children to lose their culture. I see it as absorbing the culture of our family…their family. This is a hard balance to strike and I'm sure we're always going to encounter someone who says we're doing it wrong. But for now, for us, I think we're doing it right.

What's in a name? I'm not really sure. We made our decisions on the boys names based on what felt right at the time…I guess only time will show how it plays out.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this Jill. There is so much to think about. I was adopted internationally too but the names used were not decisively from that country as your boys’ were. So interesting to hear the thought processes behind your choice. I am sure no matter how your boys feel about their names later– they will appreciate all the thoughtfulness you took in deciding on them.

  2. This made me smile. We named our Chinese daughter Juliet. As in, tis the east and Juliet is the sun, from Romeo and Juliet. All the girls ? Boys too? From her orphanage have the last name Gong in common and all in the same year get the same first name, but their second name is unique. This way they recognize each other for life by name, in theory. They have their own chat groups etc Gong Girls. As well you may be interested in the book I Have Three Names, referring to the child’s adopted name, orphanage name and the name given by their parents, perhaps never spoken, maybe as simple as Baby or little one, maybe a complete name. Any name can be beautiful if it is spoken with love.

  3. We adopted our third child. We decided to keep the name he was given as a second middle name. There are definitely a lot of factors to consider when naming an adopted child including age. One darling little girl I know who was adopted was old asked to be given a new name as part of her fresh start.

  4. I think that is a really great way that you did the names. I like that they preserve their heritage and don’t change identity but they also get names that will make them feel comfortable in their new home as well.

  5. I enjoyed reading this, but since I am not an adoptive parent, I don’t really have an opinion. I do have many areas of my life with my kids where I would love a do-over, though! If your kids are anything like my kids, they will gripe about their name at some point, whatever it might happen to be. I will say that I like their Chinese middle names. 😀

  6. Parents are tasked with such important decisions, I think it is natural to second guess if what we do is the right thing. I found out (a few months after my son was born) that the middle name my ex picked out for him was from a tv show about a hard-core biker. Not exactly what I hoped to name my child after, haha, but the name suits him.

    I love reading about adoption stories, and am looking forward to reading about your boys!

  7. No matter what there names are, they are loved and that is the most important thing. I think all parents agonize over choosing the perfect name and all the ramifications of that name as the kids grow up. I love the story behind how you made your choices, and I think they’re just perfect!

  8. It’s always so interesting to read about your adoption stories. I never really thought about names before as far as adoption goes. I thought they just already had names and didn’t need to be changed! 🙂

    1. We did already have names, but just like when you buy a dog, you want to name it yourself…. Adopters are now the owners and feel entitled to strip us of everything that is our own.

      I cringed at the author’s mention of including her children’s heritage if and when it’s comfortable for her. I wonder if she gives any thought at all to what’s comfortable for those children. They’ve given up everything to satisfy her adoption fantasy and savior complex. When does it become about what they want?

      1. Oh Susan. Bless your heart. How sadly inaccurate that you compare my feelings about my children to how pet owners feel about their pets. You’re pretty far off the mark but I’m guessing something in your own story has caused you to visit my blog and take random, trollish pot shots at my family. I’m sorry for whatever has fueled that level of bitterness in you but this is sort of like coming into someone’s house and acting like an ass. Ahem.

        You make a lot of assumptions for someone who doesn’t know me. I don’t have any fantasies about parenthood or adoption (other than ones about sleeping past 6 a.m. on a Saturday and little boys that don’t pee on the floor next to the toilet.) Good one with the savior complex, though. I needed that little bit of a laugh today.

        I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’re an adult adoptee who has stumbled upon my blog and confused my comments section for the underside of a bridge. Whatever your feelings are, I’m not discounting them, but this isn’t your free space on the internet to come and show your hiney.

  9. This was fascinating to me! I had no idea of the history or culture behind naming kids in China (or any other country for that matter). Thanks for sharing this Jill! I feel enlightened. And it’s gotten me interested in how naming goes in other cultures as well.

  10. Our adoption group (1998!) was small (6 babies) and all chose to keep the second name as part of the girls names. Like you said because it was the norm. Our daughters second name was easy “Lin”. Others were similar or perhaps a little more Chinese sounding. I wanted to comment on your post because after all these years I am starting to read things that contradict the assumption that all of these girls were abandoned. They didn’t keep finding records back then and the orphanage has been torn down and rebuilt. Unless you know for certain please keep an open mind.

  11. We are about to adopt a 22 month old boy from China and will use a first name common to the heritage of my husband and myself and an American middle name. His nickname will most likely be the one used in his orphanage now (the 2nd first name or middle name repeated twice). Thank you so much for putting me at ease for not keeping his Chinese name. My parents are immigrants and gave me an American first name, and I don’t at all feel that was a rejection of our heritage.

    1. I’m so glad you found what I wrote reassuring. Our kids’ names are our kids’ names and for right now, they embrace them…although they don’t really realize they’re unique. And so exciting! Zack had just turned two when we brought him home.