What’s in a name?

One of the first feminist readings I completed for undergrad said that as a woman, you first belong to your father and then your husband through your name.  I would cite the theorist if I could but unfortunately I cannot remember her name.  Ha.  Her words did resonate with me though and made me consider how marriage would impact my last name, which really was just adding to my laundry list of issues with this social marker.  It is something that’s always unsettled me and an aspect that I still grapple with.  You know those people that boldly say, oh, what makes you different is the greatest gift?  Well, in many cases that is very true and should be celebrated.  But in other instances it is the thorn at your side that you just have to live with.

Burmese women generally keep their names intact for a myriad of reasons I’m sure but mostly because naming is something that is taken very seriously in the culture.  Some parents take up to several months to name a child and that is only after careful consideration and consultations with astrological charts.  Your name becomes like your thumb print, unique to the day, time and stars of your birth and an embodiment of your parents’ aspirations for you.  So, not wanting to mess with the stars I considered combining the two names.  Ei Phyu Han-Smith, which for some reason it sounded like the keys on a typewriter.  The sounds were too harsh and didn’t fit.  It’s like when you call a helpline and the automated voice has a different tone and lilt for each option which ultimately does not go well together.  Therefore, after the wedding I just didn’t change it all.  I didn’t race down to city hall and the line-ups and just left it as it is.

A few years later I decided that I wanted to take my husband’s name.  I loved him, I loved the child that I was about to have and I wanted us to be a team, a unit.  In my father’s eyes I was changing my fate by making such a transformation but don’t we do that everyday with our choices anyways?  It felt like I was committing to my partner again and it finally felt right.  That was three years ago and everything from my driver’s licence to passport signifies that I am indeed a “Smith.”  But somehow people are still adding “Han” to my name, hyphenating and extending it.  In a completely irrational way, it bothers me.  It annoys me still when other women remind me of their hyphenated name and how they could never be Mrs. Whoever.  I’m all for having opinions as long as you’re open to women choosing what’s right for them.  But, I try to remember that identity projects are all well and good but we live in a social world.  It’s strange that you can embody something in such a distinct and legal way but it takes time for it to be adopted in your circle, your environment.

One time when I went to a Starbucks and stated that my name was “Smith” the cashier replied: “I’m assuming that it’s for someone else.”  Obviously, he is a racist prick but what made me more angry was that for my case I chose that name, and yes it was insulting but it wasn’t devastating.  What if I had been adopted and he reduced my identity that way?  Then I thought of my son and how he too is C. Smith but how will people react when his body might not necessarily reflect a part of his blood and heritage?  However, he’s growing up in a very different context and cultural milieu.  Half of his daycare class is not just of mixed ancestry but half-Asian.  When I went to middle school I was one of 5 Asian people in my school.  So, he’ll negotiate his identity and his world in a very different way and that’s fascinating, fruitful and productive.  So what’s in a name?  History, identity, pleasure and anxiety all melded together in flesh and bones.  There is more at stake than a line on an envelope so take care when you’re addressing it.

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