Discovering a New Identity: The Journey of an International Adoptee (OPINION)

May 4, 2022
3:13 PM

A Mayan woman wears traditional Indigenous attire in the Quiche region of Guatemala (United Nations Photo/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

PANAJACHEL, Guatemala — What’s more defining than the name we carry?

First, a name can tell the story of a person’s roots, backstory, heritage, and geographic belonging. Second, our name is the first thing we learn to write in primary school. A name expresses who we are, to whom we belong, and where we belong. Whether traditional or modern, a name, both first and last, impacts how a person is viewed by others. When introducing ourselves, we simultaneously tell more about ourselves.

A name contains so much. But what if one person has two sets of names—two first names and two surnames? How does that shape one’s identity?

People tell me I should use my dual identity and names, Norwegian and Guatemalan, to my advantage. The opportunities of two identities that are presented in movies, stories of organized crime, and financial and other opportunistic gains are in fact a reality for many intercountry adoptees that were given a name by birth that later changed, such as myself. These are the countless scenarios presented to you when given two identities, regardless of the adoption process. But as with any grounded and sane person having reclaimed a lost identity from a foreign and developing country, it has required more effort to come to peace with than seeing it purely as a punchline in social settings. Where the temptation is to laugh it off, more so is it a way to avoid providing an explanation the recipient is not ready for—and often so too the sender. 

A Personal Loss or a Much-Deserved Advantage?

Whether an adoptee carries two sets of names or not, what comprises the adoptee’s identity is often seen as a personal loss by some or a deserved victory by others—generally, a victory by the citizens of the adoptive country and a loss by those of the country of origin. Regardless, the advantages are many. Reclaimed consciously, the registration and rights in two countries can make it more feasible to choose a life elsewhere than for others wanting a life abroad.

Imagine that you, adopted or not, fall head over heels in love with a country, a country you and your family are invested in, and that you later discover that you are registered with a new set of personal data in that country: a whole new name, family tree, and Social Security number. Who gets a package of multiple citizenships like that?

But isn’t it confusing to have two identities? people ask. In reality, knowing when and in what settings to use either name is no different than coming to terms with other challenges or implications in life. When I first realized the dual identity I carried, I had a choice to embrace it or not. Accepting the fact came naturally, as there was no denying reality. After acceptance, I began seeing the fruits and wanted to embrace the two sets of names equally. With time, adapting to what was originally my first name came as naturally as choosing to educate myself about my country of origin, Guatemala. 

It was never about personal taste or preference, or which name I identified with the most. Neither were variables such as norms, group belonging, or cultural identity determining factors. The name choice was never about fitting better in a social setting or making it easier for others to understand who I am. It became about logic, where the one name was more internationally oriented than the other.

Needless to say, it is easier to invest emotionally in a country to which you technically and legally belong. This thought process allowed me to simplify the name choice and not complicate the reclaiming of a second identity more than necessary. And I believe this allowed me to see the positive sides of having a second name in and from Guatemala, instead of focusing on deprivation. 

The Chameleon

The option of making a legal name change has never crossed my mind. To me, all my names are so specific and regionally tied that the recipe for use almost came with them, presenting themselves at different times and in different contexts. What I needed to be honest about with myself was that a second name did not mean a different face—a sort of rebirth, yes, but not a new me. And I believe that reasoning goes for anyone making a similar choice.

The reclaiming of a name does not identify someone else or erase a life lived. I am still the same person because a connection to a place or someone is not dependent on a name itself. In an environment like international adoption, where so much is about biology and heritage, a name is a social given and not a biological fact—which further relates to identity development consisting of a social and cultural context, such as environment.

Some of the most important takeaways from the identity process is knowing that how a person is perceived is not dependent on the name itself. Beliefs, behaviors, and appearance is just as much part of forming an impression. A name stands on its own, but it’s how you present yourself and how you interact with the world that is most telling. And by choosing which name I present myself with to whom and in what setting, I choose my own identity.

It sounds a bit like I am posing as a chameleon, choosing which costume to wear in which environment, and to some people it might be an accurate description. But in real life, it is a strategy for identity management and self-presentation. 

Two Names, Two Worlds, One Person

“Different names may belong to different worlds,” wrote Michael Adams, provost professor of English language and literature and adjunct professor of linguistics at Indiana University, in a study about nicknames in 2009. The sentence resonates with me, as my two names truly do belong to two different worlds—one from the cold Nordics, and the other from tropical Central America. This is also a matter of perspective, as my Norwegian name most likely seems like the typical Nordic name to non-Norwegians, just as my Guatemalan name is far from exotic to the majority of Guatemalans or other Latin Americans. If anything, the two names I carry underscore a multicultural and diverse background, which is much of my personal characteristics already.

Seen under one, the two names complete me. To exclude one would be to exclude a central part of my backstory and origins, as both are equally important to me and define who I am. By reclaiming my second name, I empowered myself—a choice that only I had and that only I could take. It was my birthright to make that choice, and a pretty unique one at that.

In a world full of stereotypes, labels, and assumptions, becoming secure with your identity is the only way to control how others view you. But more important is becoming secure with who you are within yourself. And reflecting on one’s first name and last name can be a way to inhabit that control. Whether you are an adoptee reclaiming your lost identity, a migrant worker having to change his or her name for labor purposes, a transgender person claiming a concealed identity, or other groups choosing to start over, a name is no longer just a name—and for some groups, a name is an essential ingredient to feel whole as a person.

Sexual identity, religion, gender, and so on—so much of what forms us as a person is in constant flux throughout our lives and so can our name(s). Traditionally, one was never to question or change a name that was given to you. Today, people’s reasons for changing their names are mixed. It has become a trend, where a name switch is no longer dependent on cultural or historic ties. A name combination is not necessarily based on civil status either, as usually more selfish reasons lies behind a name change, as it should be.

I have an added name and surname that was originally my first. It’s important to state that multiple names and a dual identity do not apply to all intercountry adoptees. It’s far from normal, but it can occur. Evidently, it’s more common for adoptive parents to rename their children than to preserve their original names. The choice depends on the personal data that came with the adoption process, data that depends on the natural/biological mother’s actions before facilitating the adoption and the registration process of newborns in that country.

What is certain is that an adoptee’s birth records are always in the hands of others until legal age. But after that, when and if the adoptee reaches full autonomy, that’s when the true unique ride begins— the life of an adoptee.


Melissa Ramos/Brita Melissa Botnen Søreng is a Norwegian Guatemalan and an intercountry adoptee who has engaged in adoptee and adoption communities for the past 10 years. She holds a MA in political science and is currently living in Guatemala. Twitter: @melissabrita