What's in a name? Surnames, China, and Feminism

My surname is not my husband’s surname. My surname is not the surname I was born with. My surname I took from my first husband. I kept it after the divorce because by that time the name was mine. I went to university as Amanda Roberts. All of my years of hard work were under that name. All of my scholarship was under that name. All of my professors, professional contacts, and friends knew me by that name. My degrees are in that name. Like Tina Turner, who kept her husband’s surname after her divorce, I embraced the name as mine. It’s mine and who I am.

My surname has never been an issue for me or my husband. In fact, it never really occurred to him that I might take his name. He even forgets that my family has a different surname than me. The only hiccup is when people meet me first and then my husband, they sometimes call him “Mr. Roberts,” but we usually just laugh it off and politely correct them (I don’t think anyone has ever accidentally called me “Mrs. Anderson,” but don’t even get me started on the “Mrs.” thing. I hate that prefix so much.). No one has ever been rude or overly inquisitive about it, but maybe it is just a small learning experience for people about making assumptions. But for some women, whether or not to take a husband’s surname upon marriage is a big freaking deal. Today, Huff Post Women put up an interesting article sharing the experiences of women who didn’t take their husbands’ surnames and the various responses they have gotten. It’s an interesting read. I found number 6 weird, though. As a couple who travels extensively, my husband and I have never had issues with border crossings, passports, or visas because of having different surnames. I think she is probably exaggerating the “problems.”

The article really stood out to me, though, because Zoe (my goddaughter) and I had a long talk about surnames just last weekend. The only issue with having two surnames in our family is what name do we give the kids (when they arrive). Anderson? Roberts-Anderson? Something totally new like Zarkov?
We haven’t settled on a solid answer yet, but we still have plenty of time.  In China, surnames are much more fluid than in the West. According to Zoe, Chinese women never take their husband’s name. I don’t know if that is exactly true because I have met a few women who have the same last name as their husbands here. However, there is not as much variety in family names in China as there is in America, so it is possible that those couples just happened to have the same surname before they married. It wasn’t something I ever thought to ask at the time. Anyway, for me and my husband to have different surnames is completely normal in China, which I find refreshing.

When it comes to the children, though, there is a lot of flexibility. Chinese children do not automatically take their father’s name. According to Zoe, children will often take the family name of the half of the family who is higher class or has more money.  With Zoe, for example, she took her father’s name, but several of her cousins have their mothers’ name. Another option is that the children take the family name of whichever side of the family lives closest to them and provides the most care. Since the one-child policy came into effect and since most women in China work outside the home, it is extremely common for one pair of grandparents to live with (or very close) to their adult children to help care for the baby. If the primary grandparents are the mother’s parents, the baby might take their name regardless of social hierarchy.

I think the fluidity of a person’s name is intimately tied with gender and identity. At one time in most Western cultures, a woman was considered the property of men and her name reflected her ownership, be it her father or husband. Chinese culture, too, has always been painfully patriarchal, so a woman kept the name of her father to keep her tied to her birth family. But a woman’s identity shouldn’t depend on her relationships to the men in her world. She should have the right to strike out and forge her own identity. The same is true of men. An increasing number of men in the West are taking their wives’ names, choosing a new identity that reflects them and the family they want to create separate from the name of their fathers. For children, what surname they have at birth shouldn’t be the most pressing concern on a person’s list since they might change it themselves one day anyway.

What do you think? Did you change your name when you married? If not, have you faced problems or gotten flack? Did you have trouble settling on a surname for your kids? I’d love to hear your stories and opinions!