These days, there is so much dedicated time and effort that goes into choosing a name. Many expectant parents look to relatives who have had an impact on their lives in helping to determine names for their children. The name given to me by my birth family long ago in Korea was 김성준 Kim Sung Joon. After my adoption at four months old, my adoptive family gave me the name Lee Anthony – Lee after my father, Anthony after my grandfather (both middle names). They decided not to keep any part of my Korean name. As many of you know from Whitney’s previous blog posts, her adoptive family chose to keep her Korean name as her middle name, which is quite common.
Throughout my childhood, I was never really called by my Korean name other than around one day in November each year – my “gotcha” day. I remember bringing in Korean snacks for my class when I was in elementary school to celebrate my adoption day. I would tell all of my classmates that my Korean name was 김성준 Kim Sung Joon. As I got older, my Korean name was rarely used, even to the point that I eventually forgot how to spell it.
It’s funny how we spend years building a name for ourselves, even if it is unintentional. When people say your name, they associate it with many different things, including: your job, your looks, organizations you are involved with, your personality, and innumerable other positive or negative identifiers. For some, their goal is to have global name recognition. For others, the important thing is leaving a legacy for their families.
During our most recent trip to Korea, my Korean name became a major topic of discussion. Whitney’s birth parents overheard her jokingly calling me: “성준아 Sung-Joon-ah!” They asked, “Who is 성준 Sung-Joon?,” then “How do you know that? From Holt? Did you just find out?” They wondered why we had never told them my Korean name before. They asked Whitney if I would be OK with them calling me 성준 Sung Joon and she told them I was fine with it. It was a brand new experience being called by a name that I really have never used before. My identity up until that point had always been “Lee Anthony,” but now to them I am “성준 Sung Joon.” I have heard many adoptees talk about identity issues; now I can truly understand. For as long as I can remember, I have been known as “Lee, the violinist,” or “Lee, the retirement expert,” or “Lee, the guy who always smiles.” Now, with my new Korean name comes a brand new identity that I never really thought about. Even after Whitney wrote her blog posts on names and their importance, it still had not dawned on me how significant a name truly is.
During the time we spent in Korea on that recent trip, I could barely understand bits and pieces of what Whitney’s family said to me. But the one thing I became accustomed to was answering to my Korean name. This completely new experience and identity was a lot to process. To them, I’m not “Lee Anthony, the violinist” or “the retirement expert,” but rather just “성준 Sung Joon, son-in-law.” To them, my original identity began in Korea, which is right where they are picking up today. Names are very important in Korean culture, so they want me to keep my original name and continue to use it along with my American name.
Even though it was a brand new experience being called by a name that I had never used, I felt like the name 김성준 Kim Sung Joon fit me and that I could create an identity with it. It was like having a clean slate and starting over, or rather, restarting what was planted decades ago. I have a choice: I can identify 성준 Sung Joon with everything that Lee Anthony has become identified with or I have the option of starting over. This is something most people cannot do.
So who is 김성준 Kim Sung Joon? He is someone who has always existed, but has rarely been identified until now. The 전 Jeons are in no way disrespecting my adoptive family by encouraging me to use my birth name. Instead, they are helping me to understand my history and where I came from and how I am identified in/with Korea. Using my Korean name has become empowering for me. I feel that I am honoring my heritage and my biological family. Having never met any of my birth family makes identifying with them that much more difficult. There are days when I do feel that identity crisis, like the clock is ticking away the limited time I have to do a birth family search. There is a family that I identify with on the opposite side of the world – if only by name, at this point.
My hope for the future is that I can identify with both my Korean name and my adoptive name. Both are important because both help to tell my story. If you would have told me ten years ago that I would begin to be identified by my Korean name, I would not have believed you because I was so Americanized. Today, I realize that I can be both.
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