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A Discussion on Names

Check out my Instagram post here: Sophie Jean (she/her) (@sassysustainablesophie) • Instagram photos and videos

Growing up, I was fascinated with the concept of how you get named, who decides, what circumstances surround this, and how names can hold so much meaning. For example, people are often named after family members and thus names get passed down through generations. People also name their children after meaningful people in their life.

I read a lot growing up and always had a running list of my favorite names. Even in children books, there were some elaborative stories of names. This further showed me just how important names are.

As an adoptee, my name was especially fascinating because I have two. I have my Khmer name and the name my parents gave to me. Many people in my life are surprised to know I that I had a name before my adoption. My US birth certificate has my English name, Sophie.

My Khmer name was given to me by the orphanage director. I am named after a Thai actress whose on screen persona was a well behaving and obedient daughter. Since I didn’t cry a lot and was a pleasant baby, she thought it would be a good name for me. I found this information out in 2016. So for my whole life until then (I was 18 at the time) there was all this information about my name I didn’t even know about. When the orphanage director told me this story, I just started crying. It was then that I realized I didn’t even know that my biological parents didn’t name me Just another question on a list…??!!

My experience of having two names is common for adoptees. This does NOT mean you can just ask adoptees if they have two names, a “real name”, etc. Don’t ask for this information unless someone willingly talks about it with you. There is such a fine line. Names can be triggering for some and not everyone feels empowered or “chosen” by their name. DO NOT question them!

Growing up, I often wondered why my (adoptive) parents gave me an English name. Would I have faced more barriers with my Khmer name? Probably… Having an English name meant I presented as white and was more so accepted.

It interests me how much power people have in your life to name you. The power of your name is often overlooked BUT highly nuanced for me.

What Does Your Name Mean to You?

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Where To Start

I’ve thought a lot about what I should be sharing first with you all. Should it be where I am now? Should it be why I started this blog? Should it be in chronological order? I think the easiest is my adoption story.

I was born in February of 1998. I was adopted when I was around 8 months old. A small, malnourished child with a bright future and the promise of new young parents ready to love me and nurture me. I was born in a small rural town in South East Cambodia. The only information the orphanage I was brought to knew was that I was brought by my aunt and it was assumed my parents died, so they gave me up. They wanted me to have a better life, which is exactly what I got. The first orphanage didn’t have baby formula, so my aunt walked for most likely 6 hours or more and brought me to the one that actually had baby formula and is probably the key reason I didn’t die, to be quite blunt. When I was first brought, I was a healthy weight for a baby of my age, but as my time in the orphanage grew, I ate less. When I was chosen for adoption, I was given to a young nanny who took care of me. It is believed that I was only fed sugar water when I was in her care, which is how I became so malnourished. When I was younger I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t fed properly, but as I grew older it was a question of survival. The young nanny, probably a 16-year-old girl with little had a stipend and probably spent most of the money on herself. I was going to leave Cambodia, but she would never. So what harm was there in not feeding me a lot before I’d spend the rest of my life never being hungry?

If you don’t already know, Cambodia is a developing country, with much of the country living at or below the poverty line. As an orphan, I certainly did not have access to abundant resources. If you know the history of Cambodia or the region of Southeast Asia, you should know why most of the country lives in poverty. Cambodia has changed SO much since I left in 1998 and conditions are improving. Of course, with climate change and Cambodia having less access to the resources and the lagged effects of climate change developed countries like the US and Canada experience, Cambodia is facing many challenges and must adapt quickly. BUT, that’s a completely different post and I digress…

Before I was adopted, my older brother Van had been living the US with my parents. So, my Dad flew back to Cambodia to get me by himself. My favorite stories of the adoption process are the first few meals we shared together. I was told that the first meal I ate with my dad, the food he ordered I actually ended up eating because I was so hungry. My dad was joined by other parents adopting kids at the same time as me. My dad took photos of the process and created an adopted album for me. It was one my favorite things to flip through when I was younger, and still is to this day. The photos start in Cambodia with my nanny holding me, then my dad and I in various places in Cambodia, then with my mom and Van in Maine, as well as my first birthday, and all the way when my younger brother Cooper enters the picture. I am very grateful to have this album as a way to document my adoption.

I have always known that I was adopted. My parents were open and told my brothers and I this with pride. They surrounded us with other adopted kids who were of different skin colors and circumstances. For example, one of my childhood best friends growing up had been adopted from China. I think because I’ve always known that I was adopted and how my parents conveyed it to me, I have always presented this fact about myself very openly and proudly. Of course, when people see me with my white parents it becomes pretty clear I am adopted. But that’s even up to interpretation sometimes too, which is a different post as well. 

  To end, I am grateful to have been raised by two loving people who opened their hearts to three kids who needed homes. I am grateful to have been given the opportunities I have experienced and everything that comes with living in a developed country. I am even luckier that I have had the chance to return to Cambodia twice, once with my dad in 2016 and the other studying abroad in the fall of 2018. I am humbled by beginnings and have always known that I am luckier than most kids in Cambodia at that time. I live each day hoping to make sure I am not quashing the life I have been given and making the most of it.

The Journey Begins

A letter to my Reader,

Welcome! Even if you don’t make it past this page, thanks for stopping by. Any opportunity to tell my story is great. I just want to state that whatever I am sharing with you is deeply personal and not a reflection of anyone else in my life’s opinions, but my own experiences and the opinions with it. What I really want to convey, and hopefully what this blog will turn into is a window into my “inner identity” battle. A larger theme I hope to explore throughout this blog is how identities are not static, but always changing. By exploring this theme, learning how to navigate different situations and the ways in which engaging with these experiences will further evolve myself.

When envisioning what I wanted my blog to look like to my readers and what it should feel, the theme of reflectivity came to mind. As what I will be sharing is quite personal and I’m not teaching you anything directly per say, I hope by reading about my life you will in turn reflect upon your own. I hope my words inspire a journey of your own, however long it may be. By doing so, I hope it makes my blog more accessible and inclusive. I hope to create a community of open-mindedness and warmth.

Finally, I’ll leave you with my high school senior quote from a poem and one of my favorite movies, The Wind Rises:

Le vent se lve, il faut tenter de vivre (The wind is rising! We must try to live)

Paul Valery

With warmth,

Sophie J. Boardman