Friday, June 22, 2007

asians who have non-asian sounding last names

I have been a Smith for several months now, having jumped through the appropriate hoops (stood in the right lines, filled out the correct forms) to undergo a legal name change. Most things have now been switched over; a stray account here or there, and all of my school stuff remains under my old last name.

Before and after I went through the name change, friends of mine asked if I was planning to change, what I'd change to, and afterward, why I had decided to make the change. My main answer has been that I thought I felt pretty neutral about the whole thing, and I thought it would increase Alex's happiness by some small amount, so I changed my name. I realized that a new last name involved some administrative hassles, the name would take some getting used to, might change my sense of self-identity established over the last twenty-six years. Also, it would make some things easier -- e.g., recognition of us as a family unit, which would make things easier once we have kids.

What I didn't spend nearly so much time thinking about is the fact that I don't look like a Smith at all. This was made most salient to me when I went to check out a book at a public library in Los Angeles, and the (black) man behind the counter said, "Now how did somebody like you get a last name like Smith?" I told him that I had become a Smith by marriage, and he nodded with understanding.

Handing customers their receipts, checkout clerks at Safeway / Vons / Pavilions grocery stores glance at it briefly before addressing them by name. Both the name of the savings club card owner and the name on the credit card appear on the receipt, so I get either a "Thank you Ms. Smith" or "Have a good day Ms. Chan" depending on which part my checker reads. I could just be overly sensitive or making this up, but each time they address me as Ms. Smith instead of Chan, though I get the sense that I have just presented them with a conundrum or puzzle.

I wonder which of these thoughts the are thinking:
"Ah, she must have married a caucasian fellow."
"Near-victim of China's one-child policy, adopted and saved by a white, American family."
"Witness protection program member?"
"Identity or credit card theft?!"

Today I considered another practical implication of my name change when I went to meet someone selling used Wii games on Craigslist. We had communicated via email and she knew me as Smith -- would she recognize me, an Asian female outdoors?

And I realized that this is an identity issue that comes with a marital name change that some, but far fewer, individuals will undergo. An increase in interracial marriages accompanied by name changes will prepare store personnel for my arrival and payment. I wonder how long it will take before I'm used to it.