Essays Archive

Given Name, Taken Name

There is a popular (albeit misguided) belief that BIPOC kids adopted into white families live white-approximate lives and grow up with white privilege. This belief asserts that adoption is beautiful and is one of the purest kinds of love, a love that has the power to transcend racial boundaries, replacing a lost family with one newly gained. But this simplistic vision of adoption is propaganda in service to the multibillion-dollar adoption industry and its paying customers: white, adoptive parents with access to power and privilege.

As such adoptees, our proximity to white privilege directly correlates more not to our proximity to power, but to white violence. Packs of white boys riding their bikes through my neighborhood, shouting anti-Asian slurs as they passed my house. The white woman down the street who perceived me as polluting the neighborhood. Veterans who compulsively told me about their Korean War experiences when I was just a little girl.

Racist nicknames and comments about eating dogs. The erasure and isolation. Fetishism and hyper-sexualization. The rape.

To acknowledge one’s adoption trauma is devastating on its own. Doing so while enduring societal antagonism, with little to no familial support, makes for a lonely existence.

It is no wonder that studies show a 4-times greater chance of suicide attempts than our non-adopted peers. And to make things worse, the most intense hostility often comes from our own families deeply invested in the feel-good story of adoption.

My adoptive mother intensely wanted her own “beautiful” family, but because of infertility, only adoption could provide. Throughout my entire childhood, I was told that when my adoptive mom held me for the first time in the chaotic airport terminal, we both knew she was my “real” mother.

Who wouldn’t want to believe the “adoption is beautiful” narrative? It’s a tidy story of hope and transcendent love. It’s just not that simple. Because the “simple” adoption fairy tale leaves out too much. Put a frame around the right part of any picture, and you can isolate what is beautiful without showing the whole thing.

Recently, in online spaces, I started meeting other transracial adoptees, all of us with vastly different stories and experiences but who were sharing the same deep truths around adoption trauma. Specifically, the problematic underlying dynamics of growing up in white families in white communities throughout their formative years. I found an online community of transracial adoptees with whom I could talk, and could do so with raw honesty, without explanations or caveats, without worrying about being dismissed as a thankless “angry adoptee.”

Online, I started using the Korean name on my adoption paperwork. To my online adoptee community, I am Joon Ae, and only Joon Ae.

Name Origins

In a study about name reclamation, Korean adoptees self-reported that the challenges of using their Korean names included microaggressions about an “ethnic” name and resistance from family and friends. But, for many, “reclaiming one’s birth name was healing, felt more in line with an authentic identity, and was a reflection of personal growth and development.” All of this is true for me.

My name, Joon Ae, could have been given to me by my biological parent(s), but more likely, the adoption agency and government officials that trafficked me to the United States gave it to me to protect not only themselves but my biological parents too.

Yet for adoptees like me, our agency-given names are unattached and separate from the familial traditions of our biological families. We do not appear on family registries. We are excluded from Korean history, while perceived as perpetual foreigners in our new countries. In this context, adoption is an inhumane and dehumanizing practice, a cruel erasure.

The amount of information I know about my life before I was adopted is so slim that it’s almost nothing, but I do know this: I know I was with my natural mother for the first two months of my life. So, I know I had a name. It was the name I had when she said goodbye.

Ownership

As a child of the 80s, I begged and begged my working-class parents for my own Cabbage Patch doll. Honestly, I thought they were hideous, and I knew they were out of my family’s budget. But all the girls in my neighborhood had them, and I wanted nothing more than to fit in.

With their birth and adoption certificates, names and birthdates, adoption fees, and more, the “thrill of adoption” is the pinnacle of the experience of having the once-coveted doll (see this excellent Harlow’s Monkey post on Cabbage Patch kids and adoption).

Like the Cabbage Patch dolls, Joon Ae is my product name given to me by the adoption company, printed on my adoption certification. I had branding. I had pamphlets. I came packaged with promises.

I have two biological children. Naming them was a meaningful act, a careful appraisal of significance that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives. We gave both of them four names: first, last, and two middle names, all connected to family history. When my partner and I married, we hyphenated our last names as a symbolic act of joining our families, linking ourselves to one another, and sharing family legacy equitably. A family name has the power to say, ours. Forever. 

White Families, White Names

Beth is the name my white adoptive parents gave me; it is a name I grew to like very much. I grew to like this name for the very reasons I did not like it when I was a child. Growing up feeling invisible most of the time, I didn’t want a name that was so plain. But I grew into the story of it. Beth is simple, with no frills, a simplified version of Elizabeth, meaning pledged to God, a bit old-fashioned and therefore slightly rare.

My adoptive family’s last name, Kaufka (Kafka/Kavka), is a literary name, originally meaning jackdaw in Czech from the region of Bohemia. A jackdaw is a beautiful, black-plumaged bird in the crow family. It is most famously connected to Franz Kafka.

It would’ve been a shame for us to have been given carefully chosen names, as our adoptive parents renamed us with “acceptable” names. These names made us theirs. Names like Sara, Kevin, and Bill were supposed to help us belong, to be like everyone else around us. Normal. White.

Our names safeguarded us from some racial profiling, but they also erased our history and confounded our sense of self. We were not like our white peers. Our white peers knew it. And, often, made sure we did, too.

I have a few friendships with deep roots, people who I love so much that I embedded them as a part of who I am; they helped me grow the good parts about me I like. When these friends and I “get going” as we do, when we’re laughing our heads off, when we’re being intense, when we’re just being us, they forget and call me Beth. Sometimes, I don’t notice, but when I do, I feel comfort in our history, in our familiarity, in our decades-long connections. And in those moments, I don’t want to give up Beth.

Neither Beth nor Kaufka reflects my origins and ancestral lineage, but both are a part of me.

Unfamilied

In January of 2020, my birth parent search ended with the adoption agency finding and contacting my biological mother, who adamantly insisted never to be contacted again. I learned that also I have two brothers in Korea. Because of Korean law that protects biological parents, I am denied all other information.

George Floyd’s murder was a pivotal event for our nation and my family. I cut ties to my adoptive family. They believe it is they who are the truly oppressed. Though my adoptive mother was the one who first started our estrangement, she now says that I “cancelled” her, which absolves her of responsibility. My adoptive father has always been distant. My sister follows their lead. And so, we agreed to go our separate ways.

I am unfamilied.

I’m severed from both my biological family and my adoptive family. I have two families out there in the world, both of whom are inaccessible to me. Now, my family history begins with me, and me alone. What shallow offerings I have for my children.

*****

Ten years ago, when I first started a new job, I was getting to know my office mate. I told her I was adopted. She told me her nephew is a Korean adoptee with issues around adoption and family. She asked me if I, too, struggled.

At that time, my answer was basically: Nope. There is no way I could’ve predicted that a decade later, my adoptive family would break apart, but that I would connect with hundreds upon hundreds of adoptees. That I’d be a part of a movement to speak our truth, fight for our rights and the dignity of our natural mothers, and that I’d feel a sense of belonging and community that I didn’t know was possible.

I don’t have a biological family of lineage. I neither have my adoptive family by law, but thankfully, now I have a large family of other adoptees by love.


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Filed under: Essays Archive

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Joon Ae Haworth-Kaufka (she/they) is a Korean adoptee who was born in Seoul and grew up outside of Detroit. Her work has appeared in The Portland Review, Mid-American Review, and Poets & Writers, Colorado Review, Kartika, Hyphen Magazine, among others. She is a Tin House scholar, community organizer for racial and economic justice, and an adoptee rights advocate. She lives in controlled chaos in Portland, OR with her partner, three kids, three dogs, and two cats.