I recently read a blog about a Korean adoptee changing their name back to their Korean name. I wondered why in the world would someone change their name back? For me, after 23 years since my name was changed to English (I can somewhat remember that court proceeding) I can't imagine changing it back and using my previous name "Yang Woon Hee".
However, in the last couple of months I have been faced with a new question that I have never been asked before (in my 23 previous years of growing up in the US). When I think about it, I don't know why I have never been asked this question before in my life. The question is very rude, and hard to deal with sometimes. Because about the only way to politely respond it is to tell some stranger that you are adopted (Which I don't always want to divulge).
The question is usually phrased in the following ways:
"I don't picture you as a Spalding"
"You don't seem to match your last name"
My most recent occurance was last night when I was checking into my hotel in Houston (I travel a lot for my work). The girl was very friendly and was making small talk as I was checking in, when she said "I didn't picture you with your last name". I just replied "I was adopted." As I replied you could see her face drain of color as she just realized what she had said. She apologize profusely over and over. I actually felt bad for her, because I knew that she didn't mean it in any mean way, but was just trying to be friendly.
I had this discussion with my Korean tutor last week about last names. In Korea, people can use their last names and trace the family lines for hundreds and hundreds of years. She asked me how Americans got their last names. I explained that for most Americans, you can tell what ancestory they came from. How you can tell if someone had German heritage or French heritage based on their last names. This is why I didn't take offense when the Hotel clerk as me this question. Even though it was hard for me to "swallow" and to respond, I don't fault her. I would thoroughly agree that my looks do not match my last name.
In the last couple of weeks, I have really thought about this issue because I have never faced it before. When I thought about it, I was quite amazed that this was not an issue that I had to face before(or maybe it was something that I don't recall having to face, but I know I have been asked these types of questions within the last 10 years!). After being asked this question several times in the last couple of weeks, the question of having a Korean last name has really come back in my mind.
Ironically, at Sunday School class at church the discussion of names came up. Talking about how most Asians pick an English first name because it is too difficult for Americans to pronounce their first names properly. My church is predominantly Asian, and on this particular day, the only caucasion was the teacher and the rest of us were all Korean! So we went around telling each other our Korean names. The only difference was everyone else had Korean last names: Kang, Chun, Lee, and Hwang. Our teacher's last name was Calhoun and my last name of Spalding were both of Scottish decent.
Is it important that your looks match your last name? I think it makes a little bit more of a difference for a male than a female because traditionally the males carry on the family names (even in Korean culture). So its not too unusually to see an Asian woman who has a non-Asian name because people just assume she married a non-Asian. However, most men never change their family name. So if you have an non-Asian last name it is very unusual and most people don't understand how a male can have a non-Asian last name.
I doubt I would ever go to court and change my name on my own. I know growing up and even now I don't have any particular strong ties to my family name. I've always openly and sub-consciously been open to the idea of changing my last name. I know I was always fascinated with how it was always the woman who changed their last name to match their husbands. I have always thought that I would be open to taking my wife's name if I ever got married, if that was what she would rather have. I think its important for a married couple ot have the same family name, and I personally wouldn't care if its mine or my wife's. In particular, if I were to marry an Asian girl I could understand wanting to keep an Asian last name, to avoid confusions with having a non-Asian last name.
Galbi Jjim (Korean Braised Short Ribs)
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