From whatever point in my life I connected marriage and name change–probably later than average because I just didn’t notice things like that–I said I’d never change my name. I liked my name, and what if my husband had a terrible name like Schlong or Weinermeister*, or a boring one like Smith or Williams**, and besides, my mom never changed hers. There was no way I’d ever change my name, I told people when the issue came up, and I wouldn’t hyphenate either; my name already had four syllables!
Of course, now I’m married, and I am hyphenating my name. I’ve already done it socially and professionally; I’ve even gotten mail in my new name; and I’ll do it legally after primary voting and some other paperwork is done with.
There’s a lot to consider when contemplating a name change, of course: personal branding if you’re a businessperson, publications if you’re an academic, your spouse’s feelings on the matter, your own thoughts. But there are extra things to mull over if your marriage is an intercultural one. With that in mind, here’s what I thought about when making my decision.
My mother never changed her name, but her own mother believed so firmly in the tradition that she’s even put what she considers my mother’s married name (my mom’s first name + my dad’s last name) on official documents–35+ years later. So, tradition can be pretty strong, and if you’ve been a woman getting married in the United States, you’ve probably had someone say to you, or at least think at you, “Just change it, it’s traditional!”
Well, actually, no it’s not. It might be traditional in white-bread America, but it could be totally weird in your partner’s country or culture! In Japan, women are actually required by law to change their names upon marriage, unless they marry a foreigner. In Korea, on the other hand, nobody changes their family name, as far as I know, except that I think sometimes children of divorced parents get their mom’s name added as a second surname these days. Spanish women don’t change theirs, nor do Chinese women or the women of many other countries. And of course, men changing their surnames is unusual almost everywhere. In any case, while I love both Korean and American traditional food and traditional holidays and many other traditions, I don’t really think tradition in itself is a good reason for any major choice.
Just because Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” doesn’t mean the answer is “nothing.” My own name is Scotch-Irish, and while I’m not particularly attached to that cultural heritage–no kilts or coats of arms–I have been using it for more than 30 years, and I love it! It’s unusual and when you search for my first+last name, the only results are me and a woman whose ex-husband tried to hire someone to kill her lawyer, yikes. A lot of people do seem to feel like their original family names are an important marker of their cultural background, though, and that’s a great reason not to change.
I was actually in the opposite situation, in a way: After spending most of a decade in Korea, basically finishing my growing-up years there and considering making it my permanent home, I felt like Korea was such a big part of me that I was happy to add Mr. Kim’s name to my own to make McSomething-Kim. I feel like my new, hyphenated name actually expresses my cultural identity and way of life better than my old one did.
Another consideration for hyphenating instead of wholesale changing a name in an intercultural marriage is to avoid confusion. I’m a really obviously white person. Kim is a really obviously Korean name. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you probably remember the episode where Jerry goes on a date with a woman named Donna Chang who doesn’t look like anyone expected, resulting later in George’s parents deciding to go through with their divorce. I don’t want to see that “ohhhhh…” look on people’s faces for the rest of my life, in America or in Korea.
Actually, I don’t think this is a good reason in itself to avoid changing a name. (And partly, I’m just jumping at the excuse to reference Seinfeld.) I wouldn’t have let this stop me from changing my name completely if I’d been inclined to in the first place, but since I love both names, avoiding confusion is a nice perk to hyphenating.
This is another consideration that I don’t think is strong enough to base the name-change decision on, but it’s something I couldn’t help thinking about after hearing the story last year of the white man whose poem, rejected 40 times under his real name, was accepted much more quickly after he submitted it under a Chinese pseudonym. If I go about life with the name of Kim, I wondered, will I be trying to benefit by falsely taking on a cultural identity that’s not my own?
Well, I don’t know; I guess some people could view it that way, even with the hyphenation. In the end, though, I’ve decided not to worry about it. For one thing, I’m not falsely doing anything; I am actually a member of the Kim family, one who speaks (mediocre but aspiring) Korean and eats Korean food for dinner several times a week and cooks a traditional spread on both Christmas and Lunar New Year.
So anyway, in the end, the only thing that really counts when thinking about intercultural name change is who you are, and who you want to be. There’s no wrong choice, as long as it’s yours.
*I don’t know why I had such a dread of German-sounding names as child; my mom’s family is actually German-American, and so is her name.
**Also names of actual ancestors, so again, why was I such a hater?