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…
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.
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.
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.
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 an 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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However it works out, we wish you all the best!