what’s in a name

[inspired by a recent conversation with my roomies]

my mom has four names — two first names (chinese and english), two last names (maiden and married). now, this could be quite simple to navigate; after all, many chinese immigrant women face similar circumstances with little confusion. however, my mom decided, after she got married, to use her maiden name professionally. this sounds progressive for the 1970s, but it really was because she had already started publishing under her maiden name, and it wasn’t out of line culturally — chinese women don’t change their names after they marry. since they were in the states, though, my mom still legally added my dad’s last name to the end of hers… and then the confusion began.

fast forward 30 years, and you have our present circumstances: my mom uses her 4 names in every permutation possible. either first name with either last name; both first names with either last name; either first name with both last names. credit cards, checks, school records — everything has a slightly different combination, to the point where she has to show ID and explain herself thoroughly pretty much every time she buys something. it’s very, very complicated.

in response to the confusion that i witnessed throughout my childhood, i decided, in college, to take a more conservative position. (as i did with a number of other of fairly progressive moves my mom made, i now realize.) when i got married, i would just change my last name. we’d make it easier for everyone, and why did i need to cling so fiercely to mine? no need for that. i’m flexible. and wouldn’t it be a fun surprise? you see “liz stephens”, you expect one thing, and then… bam! she’s asian. gotcha.

i didn’t think twice about this until i got to grad school and started thinking seriously about working with asian american families. what kind of street cred would i have if i had a last name that wasn’t asian? no one would go to a liz granderson looking for help with acculturation issues. maybe i would have to pull what my mom did and keep the last name professionally… or use both? pull the double-last-name trick that is often associated with militant females? hmmmm.

recently, i’ve started to realize that there’s really much more to it than having an asian last name. mine is distinctly chinese — if i were to become liz kim, that would be lost. not only that, but my last name is usually held by people from taiwan, so even if i became liz wong, that piece would still be gone. i don’t want any of these nuances to be lost, because they’re not trivial — these are issues of culture, of history, of identity. and this is all the more pertinent for someone who is so freaking sensitive about being misunderstood.

and then, hell, even if i was offered a super-generic could-be-taiwanese last name like lee or wang — do i really want that? i will have had my alliterative spondee for more than 25 years at that point, and most people address me with both first and last names because they roll off the tongue so easily. is that something i want to relinquish? now we’re going past group identification and culture and heritage and straight into my personal, individual identity, and i’m not sure that i want to mess with that. and at that point, taking both last names isn’t really an option, because having three monosyllabic names in a row just sounds a little ridiculous.

hence: i find myself in a last-name conundrum. i suspect that in spite of my initial resistance, i will have to complicate things just like mom did. good thing that have an indefinite amount of time to avoid this problem….

6 thoughts on “what’s in a name

  1. I had a dilemma with my name b/c as it stands at this point, there’s actually nobody in my father’s family who would carry on the Tan name. At the same time, I didn’t want to simply keep my name and have to explain myself in the future… particularly if we have kids. So, hence, the maiden name became my middle name, and I actually use my full name fairly often.

  2. good thoughts liz. it won’t be easy. but hopefully it will somehow make sense when we are in a relationship with that person. and they will understand that we have had this name for somewhere around 30 years and that’s difficult to let go – and there are associations with it – and it holds an identity to us that is not easy to give up in one ceremony.

  3. hen and bev: funny y’all should say that — we used to joke about that in high school, about how economical it would be if we got married (“i’m like the blue light special of husbands!”). but we were kind of on to something….juls: i agree. if he was adamantly against me keeping my last name, that would be a dealbreaker… so maybe i should use that as a weeder question. (orrrr i could use it to scare the hell out of them on the second date. depends on the situation.)and “somewhere around 30 years”… yep, that sounds about right for me. 😉 (but dang, that sounds like a long time!)

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