Monday, December 20, 2010

Tai Tai

I've had this on my mind for awhile, but am only now really able to articulate it...and am not even sure I can articulate it well!

Basically, as you all know, I got married recently. And I did, against all my feminist impulses, change my name. Not because I thought I had to, or because I took it for granted that I would, or even to make life easier - because, if anything, it's made life more complicated what with all the document changes spread across not one but two countries!

No, I changed my name for aesthetic reasons. My maiden name is long and hard to pronounce in that special way that only Polish names are (it's not quite as mystifying as some you've surely seen, but it's up there on the impenetrability scale). Living in Asia with a name that is quite literally as long as four Chinese surnames all strung together was no easy thing. "And now, please welcome your seminar instructor, Ms. Jenna....err...Jenna....uh...K-K...Ka...Kw...umm...Jenna!" - and that from colleagues who know me pretty well! If you think living with a hard-to-pronounce name in the USA is tough, try doing it in a country where most surnames are monosyllabic. My husband's short, phonetically easy name is easily grasped by even those who speak no English whatsoever - which is a rarity in Taipei city. I changed it, in part, to make things easier on that front, so that I could be introduced or have someone look at my business card without scratching their forehead at a mass of letters. (To my name's credit, it has more vowels than the typical Slavic surname).

What's more, despite being very proud of my Polish heritage (hooray for kielbasa is all I can say), my husband's name plus my own first name are simply more aesthetically and aurally pleasing than the name configuration given to me at birth.

What's been tough is that, really, deep down, I don't believe in name-changing. I realize that a woman's maiden name most often comes from her father, but still, subordinating identity from father to husband? I'm not big on old-skool feminist speak (despite being a staunch feminist) but c'mon. Kind of reeks of patriarchy, does it not? (Don't even get me started on the "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" method of formal address. If anyone ever calls me "Mrs. Brendan C." beyond some well-meaning but out-of-date ancient relatives, they are gonna get an earful).

I'd like to clarify thanks to the comments my reasons for hating the "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" style of address: I don't care what the books say, I don't think it's proper usage anymore. It was originally devised as an etiquette rule, a social grace if you will. The point of etiquette is to be just that: socially graceful. To not offend anyone. To make others comfortable in social situations.

Well, "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" offends not only me but plenty of other women, and as such it no longer serves its purpose. It doesn't make people comfortable, and it has stopped being "inoffensive". There is, therefore, no reason for its continued existence. If it's bad etiquette to offend others, then "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" is bad etiquette by all reasonable definitions, unless its usage is specifically requested (in which case I don't care - someone can request to be called Mistress Bazoonga the Chimp and I'll do it if that's what she really wants).

I am not judging on any woman who chose to change her name; it's a highly personal decision and now that we live in an area of true choice, I do trust that any woman who chooses to change her name does so with full consciousness, as I did. The important verb here is, of course, chooses. Even if that woman is otherwise traditional or conservative, there is always a choice: I can name at least one good friend of mine, who got married a few months before I did, whose wife chose to keep her name. They are the most conservative Jews I know personally (though not the most conservative ones out there, by a long shot). My parents are Christians of the super-duper-liberal-love-and-acceptance variety which I respect (I have my own very complicated relationship with theology that I won't get into) and yet my mom admits that had the world been a more accepting place when she married, that she would have done so.

It also stinks that women still get a bum deal: we get a choice, but we get all sorts of baggage with that choice; we get invective and judgment that we never asked for and shouldn't really have to deal with. We get a choice between a father's name and a husband's (and, in some states, a made-up new name from letters gleaned from both). We still don't get the choice of a fully female-owned, self-owned name. I did inquire about changing my name to my mother's maiden name, but a.) it's not allowed for a marriage license name change in New York State, and b.) I'm not looking to offend my dad's family; I am fiercely proud of being part Polish. Taking a swipe at a patriarchal system isn't something I need to do at the expense of real people who are related to me by blood.

And yes, some get fiances who insist. Well, I didn't - and I wouldn't have because I wouldn't marry someone who would insist on something like that. So many women do, though (just read catherine_sr's comment for a particularly disgusting example). I don't hold anything against those couples; people make compromises all the time when they choose to pair off, and none of us has the right to judge what another person or couple has chosen to compromise on.

In short, it's been tough. I've been lagging on changing all my documents because, on some level, I don't really want to. I didn't know it was possible to be philosophically opposed to your own name....but here I am. Mrs. Jenna C., with a driver's license, passport, various investment documents, voter registration, business cards, Taiwan residency permit, NHI card etc. all under Ms. Jenna K. because I just haven't changed them.

(Which, I'd like to add, is my right. It is perfectly legal to change your name but continue to use your maiden name as long as you are transparent about it and not using it to hide illegal activity).

Yes, before you ask, I did bring up the possibility with my husband of coming up with an entirely new name for the both of us, but he didn't particularly want to change his own name which I respect given how much of a bother it is to change all of your documents and ID cards, and how hard it is to adjust to the new name - something I am learning firsthand.

Why am I writing about this now, months after making the decision? Two reasons.

The first is that I never realized the depth of my discomfort with the idea of name-changing.

The second is that I live in a country where women don't change their names.

In terms of maintaining identity as a married woman, it is honestly a bit jarring to realize that there's an Asian tradition that is more female-empowering than that of the West. I've never known a woman in Taiwan that has changed her name to her husband's, and while friends assure me that it has been done on occasion, that it's really quite rare and would be seen as "odd" by most people. Despite all of the hype about in-laws wanting the quick birth of a grandson, rather than granddaughter, despite the fact that children generally take their father's surname rather than their mothers, at least the wives themselves generally retain their own names. They don't get junk mail addressed to women who never existed and they don't get judged by random people for retaining their names.

The only time a woman in Taiwan is referred to by her husband's name is if the entire family is referred to under the name of the man ("The Chen Family") or if she's referred to as a Taitai (ie, Li Wen-ya, wife of Chen Baichuan, referred to as Chen Taitai). This is the term of address commonly translated into English as Madame - a la Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.

So, what with all the arguments back home for "It makes life easier if we all have one name", honestly, changing my name has been nothing but difficult so far (though given time, when I meet new people who only know my by my new name, it should get easier as my new name is so much easier to pronounce). People just don't...get it, and I don't mean that in an obtuse way. They don't get it because it's not in their cultural sphere, and until I explain things, it hadn't even occurred to them that women in the West do often change their names (or, if they already knew that, it didn't occur to them to remember it as it so often counts as an esoteric piece of knowledge, not applicable to daily life.) I get asked why, but thankfully without the judgment back home - on both ends, mind you - both the militant feminist sorts who think I sold out by even considering the change, and by the traditionalists who question why I am not enthusiastic about changing.

And it is true that back home there's judgment to spare: everyone has an opinion on what my (by "my" I mean me, as well as all women like me) choice should be, and why their opinion is the only correct one. It's one thing that's refreshingly absent here. I get curiosity; I don't get judgment.

That's so rarely done, though. I don't know any women under the age of 70 who are commonly called, or appreciate being called, (Husband's Name) Taitai.

As one student of mine put it, "I'm Chen S.F., or Ms. Chen. If someone called me Hong Taitai, I'd think 'who is that?' or wonder 'Really, am I so old?' But nobody ever calls me Hong Taitai, so it's OK."

So. Here I am, an American feminist residing in Asia, a woman who supports and fights for equal rights, equal treatment, equal opportunities and equal respect for men and women, going by my husband's name when the 12 million women around me who ostensibly come from a more sexist, anti-female culture happily keep their own names. They're all Ms. Chen, and I'm a Taitai.

No, I don't think that this is because Taiwan has a traditionally more liberal or female-friendly society than the USA does. Clearly that is not the case. I'm not sure why name-changing never caught on in Taiwan, but what I'm concerned with now is the fact that is decidedly not common - I'm curious as to why but that's for another post someday.

It's fairly common to change one's first name, or to have it changed for you by your parents: this can be done twice by law in Taiwan, and for any reason. One student of mine had her name changed from something rather "strong" for a woman to "Wen-ya", which implies grace and feminine demureness. "I was a tomboy and my parents wanted me to be more like a girl," she explained. "Did it work?" "No!" Considering how easy and common it is to change one's first name, I can't imagine there's a huge taboo on changing your surname (though I could be wrong). It's just...not done.

This raises a lot of questions, none of which I can answer clearly.

What does it say about me?
More importantly, what does it say about American culture? Could one not say that Taiwan has some interesting liberal aspects to its otherwise traditional culture that America lacks? Is the USA hopelessly mired in a conservative rut when it comes to women and families?
(OK, I can answer that question. I think the answer is "yes" but there is hope.)
How can I, as a super liberal feminist, keep going on about equality after changing my name because it sounded prettier?
Does keeping a name (or not) have anything whatsoever to do with a woman's status as an equal member of society?
Do I really need to feel as outdated as I do - like a taitai - in a society where the idea of using your husband's name is considered seriously out of date, something that your grandmother may have done but you'd never do?


Catherine Shu said...

What a great post! I've been meaning to write about this topic for a while. I got some crap for not changing my name when I got married from men (all of whom were American, btw), which I thought was stunning because a) it's none of their goddamn business and b) I grew up surrounded by couples who had different last names.

I didn't change my name for feminist and cultural reasons. It symbolizes my cultural and ethnic heritage and that is extremely important to me as an Asian American.

On the other hand, I happen to have a last name that I like: it's short, easy to spell, balances out my long first name and can be turned into all kinds of silly puns. I totally hear your pain about your Polish surname. My husband' stepdad and three of his siblings have a Polish surname and it took me a while to pronounce it correctly and even longer to remember how to spell it.

Among the other super liberal feminists that I know, several have changed their last name upon marriage. Some, like you, had long, complicated last names, some felt no connection to their original surname and others simply liked having the same last name as their husband.

I totally support each individual's decision to do whatever they want with their name. But it seems that no matter what decision we make, it entails tons of self-reflection about our identity... and defensiveness against people who question our decision.

This all makes me wonder what goes on through the minds of men who insist that their wives change their names and get angry when they don't. I saw an Internet posting by one who wrote "my name is the greatest gift I can give a woman." Bleeeeeeeeaaaagggghhhh....

blobOfNeurons said...

Eh ... maybe that wife-doesn't-change-name thing has more to do with the naming taboo?

Anonymous said...

I hyphenated my name. Legally. I changed it on vital documents (basically, on my W2s, my health insurance, and with the DMV ... still haven't done Social Security, and I'm not sure I'll bother), but I've socially and professionally been going by my old name.

I always said I would never change my name. I was ADAMANT about it. I changed my last name, by choice, to my (maternal) grandfather's name, and I LOVE MY NAME. It is who I am, and I feel very attached to it in a very tangible way.

Yet, I found, that I wanted to do something to honor the family who had welcomed me with such open arms. I don't know why I felt so strongly about tacking his name at the end of mine, but I did. I did it for myself, and to most people I just say that I am "going by" my maiden name.

As for the Mr. & Mrs. hisname ... eh, that doesn't bother me as much as I think it should. It's probably in part because I am kind of nuts about proper English, and that's proper usage. Yes, it's proper usage due to an antiquated patriarchy, but it still is proper usage, so it doesn't bug me all that much ... at least, not enough to, say, call my sister-in-law and ream her out for addressing our Christmas card that way. :)

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

catherine - I hear ya on the judgment back home! It's amazing that we as an American society still put up with men insisting that their wives change their name. I have no problem with a woman choosing to do so, and no problem with a woman compromising if it's not that important to her, but I have a *huge* problem with men who insist on it, as though they have any say (even as a spouse) over what their partner is named.

blob - no, I don't think the non-name-changing for women has to do with taboos; because honestly, changing one's first name is quite common here (you can do it without hassle twice, and parents might do it if they feel that the chosen name isn't "working out", which could be something said to them by a fortune teller about the balance of elements or it could be because the kid just doesn't have the personality that the parents had hoped for. I had a student who had her name changed to Wen-ya (implying delicate, feminine grace) because her parents found her too tomboyish. "Did it work?" I asked. "No!").

If it's so common to change first names, why not last?

I also don't think the reason is feminism. Whatever it is, it's still a better tradition.

irisira - I edited my post to address that thorny issue of "proper usage". In short, I can't condone as "proper usage" something that was invented to be an etiquette norm that would not offend (etiquette being the rules of social grace so as to make everyone comfortable)...but has now begun to offend. If it offends people, it no longer "works" as an etiquette rule and therefore I can't support it as proper usage. I don't give a damn what any books on the matter say. The problem is not in the people who are offended; it's in the offending phrase. I see it as being as obsolete as "est" as a verb ending or the use of "thou".

That said, the only people who still seem to use it are ancient aunties and the like, and they just don't...know. They don't get how much it offends. So I let it go, because old aunties won't be around forever and hopefully the rules will change naturally, as language so wonderfully does.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I wanted to add that if one of those "you have to take my name!" men out there meets and marries a woman who agrees with him, that's actually fine with me. I don't agree with it personally but my personal preferences are not the Platonic Ideal of all preferences. People are free to disagree and live their lives as such.

It's when someone thinks that way and marries a woman who *doesn't* necessarily agree, but she changes her name anyway because he insists on it without any desire to compromise. That makes me a little bit ill.

Anonymous said...

If you disliked your birth surname so much, why didn't you change it before? I have a feeling that if the last names had been reversed, you'd have come up with a rationalization for taking your husband's long Polish name.

"We get a choice between a father's name and a husband's"
Um, no. To use your logic, you get a choice between your father's name and your FATHER-IN-LAW'S name.

You don't have a "female-owned, self-owned name" because you don't respect yourself enough to believe that you have one. Notice that your husband wasn't willing to change his name. LEARN from your husband and other men. They all have self-owned names because they believe that the name on their birth certificate is their own. Very few women have that much self-respect.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

You are wrong, but thanks for playing the Assumption Game. If my name were easy and nice-sounding, and my husband's name long and convoluted I woukd not have changed it. If it matters, my husband would have been more likely to consider changing his name if he did not like the one he already had. We discussed it at length - it was not so much about "my name is MINE" as "I like the name I've got, why change it?" And I agree: if I'd liked my birth name I would not have changed it. Why change what you like?

Why didnt I change it earlier? Well, to what? And have you done so? Do you know time-consuming and costly that is? Its only free when done due to marriage and somewhat less time consuming. Also, did you not notice that I live abroad? I can't just get the papers and go to court with no problem when I am ten thousand miles away. It was hard enough to get a marriage license as expats (had to specifically fly home in the right time frame). Renewing a drivers license is hard enough as an expat and I still have not changed documents because from Taiwan I mostly cant.

Furthermore, just because the system is patriarchal does not mean I wanted to offend my father's family - a real concern. I do love them after all.

But $&@% you very much for judging me and assuming that I do not respect myself, even though you don't know me. As I said in my post, the world needs less judgementalism re: women, not more sanctimonious prigs.

I have the confidence and self-security (if thats even a word) to put these thoughts into words and publish them, and defend them if need be.
That is not for the weak-hearted or self-effacing, considering what a nasty place the Internet can be esp. for women. You with your judgmental comment, "Anonymous" makes me wonder who is really lacking confidence and self-respect. You clearly have none for others.

wonder who is the one lacking in self-respect here, a