On Changing Your Last Name

By Simon Yau

“Are you going to change your name?”

I posed the question to my then-fiancee with a practiced nonchalance about a month before we were to get married.

“I don’t know” she demurred, followed disconcertingly quickly by “probably not -- your last name doesn’t sound nice”.

Clearly we had both already given the topic some thought, so I wasn’t entirely unprepared for her concerns. Sure, I personally don’t agree with her assessment of my family name (as far as Chinese last names go, Yau is neither super common nor easily turned into a sexual pun, so I always figured I could do worse. Also, what’s so great about “Cheng”? I mean, please. Boresville amirite? But I digress. I’m totally not bitter.), but I also don’t blame her for approaching her decision with the appropriate gravitas.

The whole idea of changing your name just because you’re married is pretty crazy when you think about it. You live your whole life with your name, and despite what Shakespeare may say -- names totally matter. Just ask Shannyn Sossamon’s first kid.

The whole tradition of assuming the husbands family name is itself part-and-parcel of the melting pot process here in North America. It seems a little bit patriarchal (duh), as even though it’s completely legal for a husband to assume a wife’s family name after wedding, the times I have seen or heard of this happening is literally zero. I have heard of one couple who combined their names into a new last name though. Good on them, and more on that later.

In Chinese culture, wives traditionally keep their maiden names after marriage, although in Hong Kong, where colonialist influence is more evident, it is common practice for women to prefix their husband’s family name to their own -- essentially the reversed equivalent of hyphenating your name here in Canada.

Speaking of which, non-Asian folks, please don’t ever take for granted the ability to hyphenate your last names.

Here, according to Wikipedia (this isn’t the Globe and Mail, chill out), are the most common Chinese surnames in Canada: Wong, Chan, Li, Chen, Wang.

I mean, come on. I might have failed finite math in high school, but even I know there aren’t that many permutations of those five names that roll off the tongue. Not only do most of those names sound stilted when hyphenated, but it seems likely that they would be confused for a single Chinese name anyways when read by most people.

When discussing this topic, my favourite scenario actually occurs when two people have the same last name and therefore don’t have to think about any of this stuff at all. I have two friends who got married whose last names were both Lee. Suffice to say, they had minimal paperwork to deal with post-nuptial. Double suffice to say, I am a little bit jealous of that kind of convenience.

Anyhow, the point is, although these are not foibles commonly editorialized about in Brides magazine, they are actual idiosyncratic things my wife and I had to consider when we got married.

In the end, my wife is keeping her maiden name and I’m totally ok with that. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there is a small, socially normative part of me that wouldn’t be pleased if she chose to assume my name, but hey, you can’t win ‘em all. Also, I am sound in the knowledge that at least our future kids will be little Yau’s.

Mini epilogue: our friends actually want us to go the combine-our-last-names route, but the best sounding version of that would be “Chau”, which is actually just another common Chinese surname. The other way would perhaps be “Yeng”, which is an uncommon, but probably still actual, Chinese surname.

I’m now leaning towards changing our last name to “Weston”. Never too early to give your kid a headstart in life right?