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Monday, April 24, 2017

Here's What We're Doing With Our Last Names

"Mrs" and "Mr" signs at a wedding. Image source.
Traditionally, when a man and woman get married, the woman changes her last name to match her husband's. But nowadays, at least among feminists, it's not always this way. There are lots of other options. I'd like to tell you what Hendrix and I decided to do.

When I was little, I always wanted to change my last name to my future husband's. I didn't know what patriarchy was, or realize that there was something extremely unfair in the idea that wives need to change their names and husbands do not. Instead, I was excited to switch to a cooler-sounding last name. Like, find a guy whose last name sounds like some kind of dinosaur or something. SO COOL, right? As a woman, I have a chance to upgrade to something better, whereas men don't (according to the tradition).

But now I'm engaged, and in a few months, Hendrix and I will get married. And we decided on this together: I'm going to change my Chinese last name, and he's going to change his English last name. See, we actually both have 2 names- a Chinese and an English one- and we use them in different situations. For me, my English name is my "real name," the name on all my IDs and paperwork, the name that most people call me, and I picked a Chinese name for convenience reasons when I'm in China, but it's not officially my name in any sort of legal sense or anything like that. For him, it's the opposite.

Please note that a Chinese name consists of Chinese characters, not letters. Let's use 李雷 (li lei) as an example. In Chinese, the last name goes first. 李 (li) is his last name. It's pronounced "li" (err, if you're not familiar with Chinese pronunciation, it's pronounced "lee"), and when you fill out paperwork in English, you write it as "Li" but his last name isn't actually Li, it's 李. In modern-day mainland China (which uses the pinyin system to write the pronunciation for Chinese characters), "李" gets written as "Li" when you need to change it into an English name, but Chinese-speakers in other places might write it as "Lee" instead. What I'm saying is, he uses "Li" as his last name when he's introducing himself in English, but it's not his real name (though the pronunciation is the same as his real name), and wouldn't it make more sense for him to just use my last name as his English last name?

If he had grown up in an English-speaking environment, things would be different. I am NOT saying that because "Li" comes from Chinese, it's not a "real" last name in English. That would be racist as hell. I'm NOT saying "my last name sounds more European so we're both going to use it as our English name" because, again, that would be racist as hell. Obviously there are people named Li who were born in the US, or spent a lot of time in grad school in the US, or whatever, and Li very much is their real name. (Or perhaps 李 and Li would BOTH be their real name. I'm not making rules about this- each person can decide for themself.) That's not the case for Hendrix and I. I just kind of made up a Chinese name for myself, and he just kind of made up an English name for himself, just to make it easier to communicate with people in both languages. We're both going to change our "made up" last names.

(I'm also not in the business of policing what is and isn't someone's "real name." This is about how Hendrix and I feel about our English and Chinese names and how they relate to our identity. Other people might feel differently about their name(s) and that's fine. You do you.)

So we're not making any changes that involve paperwork and legal stuff. As far as the government is concerned, nothing changes. And I'm glad about that, because in the future when I'm applying for Chinese visas and things, it might be a pain if I suddenly have a different name. (In China, people don't change their last name when they get married. And then kids get their father's last name.)

The last-name question worked out very well for us; we have a perfectly equal and symmetric solution. So there you go- the secret to feminism is marrying a partner who was raised in an environment that doesn't even use the alphabet we use in English. I'm kidding about that; I don't feel like "wow I am more feminist than other women who change their names." No, of course not. If a woman wants to change to her husband's last name, that's fine. There are perfectly valid reasons for doing that. We shouldn't judge other people's choices, but work toward a future where no one is forced to give up their name.

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