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?