My American Name? My Married Name? My name.

A North Texas legislator suggested voter identification issues for Asian-descent voters could be simplified if they changed their names. You know, change their crazy Asian names into American names.

My American name is Kathy Khang. My parents gave me “Kathy” (just “Kathy”, not “Katherine” or “Kathleen”, and not “Kate” unless you happened to be my high school homecoming date who was the only one to ever call me “Kate”) because the “k” sound similar enough to the first sound of my Korean name – KyoungAh. They simplified my name when we immigrated because they figured that was one elementary/junior high/high school torment they could save me from. The whole “go back to where you came from” was beyond a name change.

My parents also took on “American” names. Sort of. My mom became “Helen” and my dad just took “Shin” (the first syllable of his Korean name)  when they bought a drycleaning business. Customers would come in and chat with “Helen” and “Shin”, but when they sold the store it became awkward to introduce my parents to anyone as “Helen” and “Shin”. In my world, adults didn’t have first names, and in my world as an Asian American I would never fully be an adult so long as my parents were around.

Many immigrant families also changed their names and made them more “American” by changing the order of their names. In Korean culture, your full name starts with your surname – identifying first your family line and then your individual name (which also carries a generational marker, historically if you are male). My male cousins all “Suk” as the second syllable to their name. Clearly, you can see why they might have wanted to changed their names had they immigrated to America.

I am not surprised at this politician’s suggestion. In her mind and personal experience it really may be that simple. Change your name and be an American who won’t get questioned when you want to vote. Right.

But I am a bit surprised at how this conversation so far is limited to race. I’ve blogged about this before. While it is becoming more and more prevalent, it is still generally assumed that the woman will change her name upon marriage. If anything, being progressive means asking the bride-to-be, “What are you planning on doing about your last name?” Rarely is it assumed that the woman would keep her name (unless you have a friend, and you just know she’s going to keep her name).

When I got married, the assumption was that I would change my last name and take my husband’s last name. I got all sorts of questions:

  • Don’t you want everyone to know you are married to your husband? Yes, what does my name have to do with it?
  • Don’t you want to be known as a married couple? Yes, but again what does my name have to do with it? I also want to be known as an individual who had a life that mattered to God before I got married.
  • Peter is going to let you do that? Is it Peter’s decision alone?
  • What will your family think? Actually, my parents were honored.
  • What will your inlaws think? At the time I didn’t stop to ask.
  • Don’t you think it will be confusing when you have children? Confusing for whom? Are you worried the children will be confused or others will be confused?
  • What will people call you? They will call me by my name.
  • Isn’t it just easier to change your name? Actually, from what I hear, no. There’s no paperwork involved in keeping my name.

Almost 16 years later I am still explaining the name thing, with less bite. The kids all have my name as part of their name. B, C & E go by what the Texas Rep. Betty Brown would call their “American” names, but they also have their “Korean” name, followed by my last name and then their “real” last name (my husband’s last name). I tinkered with the idea of pushing that the kids would have my last name, but when you’re struggling through months of nausea and exhaustion some things ceased to be critical. In the end, they each know their names and the significance and story behind why we chose B, C & E. They know why their grandfather chose their Korean names, why we wanted them to have Korean names and the meaning behind each syllable. They know why my last name is a part of their name, and they know that even though I have a different last name I am their mommy who knows them and loves them and is part of their family.

I agree with many of the frustrated comments being thrown about in response to Rep. Brown’s suggestion. Names matter, but I don’t want to read motive or intent into her comments because I don’t know her.

I do know that spelling “Brown” is easier than spelling “Khang”. I do know that when someone hears “Brown” there are different assumptions made than when you hear “Khang”. My sister often gets a surprised response when people have heard of her before they meet her because she goes by her married name – a more “American” name. I suspect Asian adoptees go through something similar. There are cultural connections that people still value and make in and through names while the definition of American is still changing and being challenged. There isn’t a whole lot that is easy about becoming or being an American, especially if you aren’t White. A name change won’t do it. Living in American for most of your life doesn’t do it. Citizenship does it in a legal sense but doesn’t cover the day-to-day nuances of American life and acceptance into America.

But as a married woman, my name, changed or not, matters as well. There is a cultural and family connection to my past that profoundly shaped me into the woman my husband married. There is nothing easy about being married, with or without children – joy doesn’t make everything easy. And when things get tough, a common name isn’t going to be what pulls you through.

As an Evangelical (insert lit match here), names matter. Why? Because in many evangelical circles it matters whether or not Junius was Junia. Name is not strictly race but also gender.

So, do names matter to you? Why is changing your name for the ease of others offensive or not? What is the story behind your name? And, would you change your name to change the story?


  1. David Yang April 9, 2009

    Traditionally in Korean culture women don’t change their last names when getting married. Also, in some countries, like Japan, men can opt to drop their family name and take on the wife’s. I bring these up because the “issue” of changing names when getting married is a complex one that involves a lot more buckets than merely “race” and “gender.” For the sake of brevity, I’ll point out changing socio-economics, gender roles and multiculturalism.

    My greater concern is that trying to tie one’s last name to cultural heritage is a slippery slope because where does one draw the line? Khang (like Yang, and so many other “Korean” names) have origins in China. As such would you define yourself as Chinese? If not, when does that cut-off happen?

    The moment immigrants leave their home country to permanently live here, their identity and connection with the home country deteriorate. Though many immigrants may still be able to speak, read and write in their native language, as time goes by, these ties lose strength and all that’s left is an academic understanding of one’s heritage.

    I’m not looking to dismiss the importance of names but rather point out that the harder we try to correlate family names to culture, the more we glorify their connection to our past.

    Besides, being American isn’t about glorifying our “home country.” Rather it’s about taking the past and making some new here and injecting our “identity” into the American definition. Otherwise, why did we ever bother to leave?

  2. Una F. Lucey-Lee April 9, 2009

    You know that I am going to comment on this blog entry!
    First, I love the Junius and Junia comment – touche!
    Second, I want to ask the legislator, “for whom are we making this easy? and, why is ease valued over staying true to one’s given name?”
    Third, I experience the opposite of what your sister experiences. People think that I am Asian when they hear my name before meeting me, especially since I’ve added Lee.
    Fourth, I wholeheartedly support your decision to have the last name that you want! Names matter.

  3. Alice in Wonderland April 17, 2009

    I came accross your blog through pegpie and love the issues you present here.

    I think there are many good and bad reasons for keeping your maiden name. The bare act in and of itself tells me nothing.

    However, I do see a lot of women in my generation (almost 30) and in my profession (law), keeping their maiden names out of a desire to assert their equality with their spouse.

    They want the world to know that they are on equal footing with the man. Equal authority, equal power, equal status.

    I, however, believe that men and women are of equal worth and value, but the man is the head of the household. It is a difference in position, not status–which is equal. But the man is the leader and head–there aren’t two heads.

    However, what does leadership mean? It means being the leader of self-sacrifice for the sake of the household. It means being the greatest servant of all for the bettermant, joy, cherishment, and uplifting of the family–wife included.

    Leadership means servanthood.

    Just as Christ gave himself up completely for the church, his bride of which he is the head, so every man who is a leader ought to follow this model of utter selfless giving.

    It is a tragedy that the term leadership has been long defined as arrogant power grabbing for the sake of self aggrandizement.

    I believe in redeeming the word to mean what it ought to mean–the highest form of servanthood as modeled by the servant-king.

    And I’m happy to have my last name reflect that.

  4. […] My American Name? My Married Name? My name. « More Than Serving Tea […]

  5. Lisa September 24, 2009

    Names are significant for many reasons. It’s hard to touch on this whole huge subject in one comment.

    I loved being Lisa Haller. I like who I was and felt comfortable with myself.

    When I became Lisa Liou it was a time of huge transition in my life. I was newly married, newly graduated, newly on staff, no longer a student. For a while I despised Lisa Liou as an unknown nobody, known only in her relation to her husband. “Jeff’s wife” was how I felt I was perceived. But, as I grew in confidence, saw wounds heal, and saw who God made me to be, Lisa Liou became like a rebirth (like Abram becoming Abraham or Saul becoming Paul). It wasn’t marriage that made the difference, but it just happened to be a significant time of transition in my life and identity when my name change happened. I think a lot of time changing names is significant for new beginnings in someone’s life, though I agree that contrived reasons for changing one’s name (like legislation or even sometimes the American custom of taking the man’s name in marriage) are not of this type of significance and could cause people to feel like meaning in their name is being taken away.

    Even though I’m not Lisa Haller, I still take pride in being a Haller though.


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