Tradition, confusion, and appropriation: Changing your name in an intercultural marriage

March 21 | Guest post by Sara McAdory-Kim
Khal and Khaleesi -- everyone's favorite intercultural married couple -- wedding day Funko Pops.
Khal and Khaleesi — everyone's favorite intercultural married couple — wedding day Funko Pops.

At some point in my life I connected marriage and name-change, and said I’d never change my name. I liked my name. And what if my husband had a terrible name like Schlong or Weinermeister. (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.) And besides, speaking of my mom… she never changed her last name. So there was no way I’d ever change my name, and I wouldn’t hyphenate either — my name already had four syllables!

Of course, now I’m married, and I am hyphenating my name: Sara McAdory-Kim. I’ve already done it socially and professionally; I’ve even gotten mail in my new name! And I’ll do it legally soon.

There’s a lot to consider when contemplating a name change, of course: personal branding, 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…

1. Tradition

The draw of 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 your name, it’s tradition!”

Well, actually, no, it’s not. It might be traditional in mainstream 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 always change theirs, nor do Chinese women, nor 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.

2. Identity

My own name is Scotch-Irish. 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! I love it. And it’s so unusual that when you search for my whole 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: 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 who I am, 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.

3. Confusion

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 last 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. 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.

4. Appropriation

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… especially after hearing the story last year of the white man whose previously rejected poem was accepted to an anthology after he resubmitted it under a Chinese pseudonym. If I go about life with Kim as a last name, 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 even speaks (mediocre but aspiring) Korean.

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.

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  1. I didn't change my name legally either time I got married. My reasoning? My kids have my last name. Socially, I hyphenated so ex hub's name was really easy to drop. So while I'm Ms. MyLast legally, I'm Ms. MyLast-HisLast socially and Ms HisLast when I take care of his business (like paying his bills or setting his appointments). My handfasting with boyfriend is coming up and I've been thinking about what to do with my name socially. MyLast -HisLastHisLast? MyFirst MyLast HisLastHisLast?

  2. The guy whose poem was accepted under a Chinese name didn't resubmit it to the anthology as far as I'm aware – it had been rejected by other anthologies/journals but the particular one that accepted it had not seen it before under a Western name.

    Also in Japan the family is required to take one name or the other – men can take their wives' names…it's not so much required that women take their husband's name as it is typical that his is the name chosen. But theoretically under the law, if not popularly done, the wife's name may be the family name.

    1 agrees
    • I went back and read my source articles and… You're totally right and I'm totally embarrassed!

  3. Right there with you! I have decided to change my last namely(with one of main reasons being because our child carries that name as well), but in our area it is a very non-white last name and I also worry about the cultural hijacking that might take place when one learns my name before actually meeting me(for example, on a job interview), but at the same time, have realized their assumptions are not my fault or problem.

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  4. I've been pondering this recently, too. My fiance is a tribal Native American with a traditional last name, and only about two dozen people in the world share it. It designates his family's role within the tribe as fisherman, which is still accurate for his cousins. Most people don't know the name in our current city, he's literally the only one with that name within 900 miles, but sometimes people who work or volunteer in Indian Affairs / Indian Education (as the government still calls it) recognize the name.

    Interestingly, the people most opposed to my upcoming surname change have been white people who would also think it's disturbing if I kept my maiden name, what with being a maiden and all. Even people in my family have accused me of trying to gain something by "appropriating" my fiance's surname. Saying that I'm not taking his surname by force – as a couple, we decided to share a surname and we opted to share his – is not satisfying to people who want to be scandalized, I guess. Everybody's got to have an opinion.

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    • I'm in a similar boat, but on the opposite end. I'm half native and was raised around my mom's native family. But she took my dad's very white, common last name. My fiancé is Irish. I want to work within a native community, and having a recognizable native name would help. So I'm going to be Mom'sMaidenName-HisLast.
      People who say you're appropriating his name are wrong. It's the choice you two have made together and it should be respected.

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      • I totally agree with both of you. I thought about the appropriation aspect partly involuntarily and partly because my work sometimes involves Korea and I wanted to be thoughtful about it–but in the end, the only thing that matters is your choice as partners.

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  5. I'm going through this right now, and the solution we've tentatively come to is that my Chinese-American fiance is going to take my (Anglo) last name. But I still have so so so many feelings about it. I, too, have always been in the Never Changing My Name camp. But, you know, then I fell in love with this dude I'd do just about anything for. And while I grew up in a blended family and think nothing of parents and kids having different surnames, my fiance grew up with a single mom, feeling his own lack of belonging to a traditional nuclear family. So we have very different ideas about what we want our family to look like, even though we both know we want to make one together. I'm fairly tempted to take his name, despite all my NEVAR CHANGE posturing for decades.

    And, weirdly, it's an inverted version of a lot of the reasons you cite. Re #1, while it's not traditional in China for women to take their husband's name, my fiance is American-born and grew up in mainstream U.S. culture. It would feel strange to cite Chinese traditions for why I won't take my husband's Chinese surname. (Especially because he wasn't raised to honor those traditions at all.) Re #2, my current last name doesn't reflect my own ethnic identity that well, in the first place, and while it's a perfectly fine name, this stuff doesn't matter that much to me. Re #3, I frankly welcome the confusion that would result from a white girl with an obviously Chinese surname, and, to be honest, it's something our kids are going to face every single day if they have their dad's last name. It seems weird not to be willing to carry that burden. Re #4, appropriation is taking something that's not yours, not having a different name than would be expected based on your skin color or facial features. The problem with that poet is that he LIED about his race, identity, and perspective in order to benefit over others, and took something he had no right to. Not that a white guy with a non-white last name was successful at something.

    Again, we still haven't decided what we're doing, and I have plenty of reservations about all of this stuff from the opposite direction if my fiance decides to take my name. Will he lose a part of his culture? Will people feel somehow duped when a guy named Chris Smith (not his name) shows up and turns out to be Asian-American? But it's all stuff we're mulling over as we figure out WTF to call our family.

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    • It's so interesting to read your thoughts, and they all sound totally reasonable! One thing you said especially resonates with me: "I fell in love with this dude I'd do just about anything for." I think one reason I was so firmly anti-name-change in the past is that, well, I never believed I could love someone this much!

      • Agreed. Before I was in this position, I never thought I could love someone this much. I also kind of assumed that a guy wanting me to change my name would be because he was a sexist, or super traditional, or just sort of oblivious/mean. I now realize there are a lot of reasons a person might want their family to all share one name. But I'm still no clearer on what to actually do.

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    • Agree. Appropriation used in this context is a stretch and I feel like the author overthought that aspect.

      At the same time, it's quite frustrating to hear people talk about names that "sound [insert ethnicity/race". Way to perpetuate stereotypes.

      Just change/don't change your name. Do what's right for you. Write about it. Lament about it even. But don't make this about ethnicity, race, or cultural appropriation. That's not even within the realm of fair and downplays true hardship experienced by persons at risk for this phenomenon.

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  6. "I don’t want to see that “ohhhhh…” look on people’s faces for the rest of my life, in America or in Korea."
    " If I go about life with Kim as a last name, I wondered, will I be trying to benefit by falsely taking on a cultural identity that’s not my own?"

    I'm not one to throw around "offended" too often, but those two ideas are extremely offensive (and yes, I read the whole article first). So now we have to be the same cultural background as our spouses, in case someone thinks we're trying to Rachel Dolezal everyone ? I'm surprised Offbeat Bride would allow such an offensive sentiment. It's like some sort of backhanded insult to claim "I would never think that, but other people might." 0_0

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    • BonnieBunnies, I'd love to talk to you more about why this post made you feel that way. My husband and I are definitely from different cultural backgrounds (Korean citizen + generally Anglo-Saxon US citizen), so having to be the same cultural background as our spouses is definitely not the sentiment I was trying to communicate! The thing is, when I was thinking about name change before my wedding, I didn't find much on the internet about other people's experiences with this (e.g. this post is already the fifth result when you google name change in intercultural marriage), which is why I wanted to share my thought process.

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      • That also made me think, I don't believe it's offensive, but I don't think cultural appropriation applies because you are not pretending to be from a culture you're not, instead you are embracing a new culture. When you marry someone from a different culture you are basically joining the two different cultures, two different lifestyles and this will determine everything about your lives together especially if you are planning to have kids someday.

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    • Thank you. I was significantly offended by this post too. In fact, I have never even responded before but the lack of discretion and sensitivity displayed by the author is unbelievable.

  7. I have a number of white friends who have Asian last names after changing their name when they got married – it confuses people. I also have a few Asian friends born in North America who people always comment on how well they speak English or how they don't have an accent.

    I have a friend who works in the Canadian civil service. She started applying for jobs before she was married (Irish last name) and she had passed her French language exams (being bilingual English/French is important and usually results in a better chance of getting a job). After she got married she changed her name to her husband's French last name and got a job right away (note: husband's last name is French, he was born in Quebec, his mother is French – my friend speaks/writes/understands French better than him).

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  8. As a mixed-race kid of a white mom and a Chinese dad, I can't help but feel a bit irked by the thought that anyone would think my mom changing her name 35 years ago could be considered appropriation. My mom took my dad's Chinese last name, and it never occurred to me that she would do so for any other reason than she wanted the whole family to have the same name…not that she was trying to steal some kind of unspecified cultural benefits from her husband's culture. Now that I am preparing to get married to my fiancé, and I contemplate whether or not I want to keep my name, change it, or hyphenate it, I am not going to be concerned with whether or not it's appropriation. I am usually super liberal and sympathetic to cultural appropriation issues, but this is where I draw the line personally.

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    • My fiance is in the exact same situation (white mom, Chinese dad) and his family is exactly the same! I wouldn't even think twice about taking his name – he is proud of his heritage and both his mother and I are respectful of it as well and proud to be a part of their family. Appropriation kind of seems ridiculous to me.

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    • Vanessa, I totally agree with you. But it's still something that occurred to me when I was thinking about my own personal choice, which is why I included it when writing about my thought process.

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  9. I'm currently planning on marrying my childhood sweetheart, who is half-Chinese (Taiwanese really) and half white. His mother (German) took his father's name (Taiwanese) so I don't feel uncomfortable doing the same, though Mrs. Chen will be a bit funny when I waltz into my classrooms with my huge mane of curly hair and blue eyes, as I'm a teacher. I honestly kind of look forward to not being what people expect.

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  10. I have sort of the opposite problem? I was given a cultural appropriating surname at birth. I have a Hispanic last maiden name but am physically & culturally white. The name just happened to travel down the paternal line to me. While I have the occasional "Wow, I am clearly not white enough for you moments." those are few and far between, and usually in situations where I am named first before being seen. My name tends to cause more awkwardness with my lack of Spanish speaking and lots of Spanish robo calls I can't understand. Sometimes I wonder, am I taking resources that should be for actually Hispanic people, rather than being one in name only? Am I accidentally taking someones place in a quota? I have all the privileges of my white appearance, and am I also "stealing" what privileges a Hispanic person could have on paper? I'd rather not have that worry. I always planned on changing my name even if I didn't marry, but my fiance's Germanic name makes it convenient. It's also really uncommon, too, which is a nice bonus.

    2 agree

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