To change names or not [after marrying a Chinese in China], and if yes, how?
When you marry a Chinese, it challenges many cultural assumptions about what matrimony is, and how we announce it. White dress or red qipao (or even both)? Hotel or church?
And, perhaps, even more puzzling — should she change her name, or not?
See, in China, women don’t change their names after marriage. In many Western countries, women do.
So, the question is, which tradition should you follow?
Tianjin Shannon, not long ago, wondered just that as she pondered what to do after marrying her Chinese husband — and some of the comments she received illustrate possible options for a woman.
So, here goes…
Reasons For a Name Change
Western tradition. For some people, the Western tradition matters, and they want to mark this change in their lives with a new moniker. Period.
Break with family. For some women, their original last name conjures up tear-stained memories of a difficult childhood or strained family relationships. They may feel more aligned with their husband’s family, and want to demonstrate that alliance with a new last name.
Fewer travel hassles. When you don’t change your name, you have a different surname from the children — and that means additional hassles when you cross the border, just as the NYTimes Practical Traveler notes:
Jane Dunham, 50, of Westerville, Ohio, was caught off guard a few years ago when traveling with her two daughters, who go by their father’s last name. Delta stopped the trio on their way to Cancun because they didn’t have a notarized letter of consent for the trip from the father. “I scrambled to call him and get him to fax a letter to the airline that had a copy of his driver’s license on it,” Ms. Dunham said. “We nearly missed the flight.”
That experience prompted her to carry documentation every time she travels, including the death certificate for her husband, who has since died.
….If you have a different last name from the child’s, bring a copy of the birth certificate for proof of guardianship. If you have remarried and have a new last name, a marriage certificate or other legal paperwork that links your name back to the one listed on the birth certificate can be helpful.
Reasons Against a Name Change
Chinese tradition. Maybe the Chinese tradition matters more to you.
Too much trouble. Changing a surname means slogging through paperwork, and replacing all of your IDs, credit cards and bank cards.
Confusing. Whether we like it or not, people make assumptions about appearance based on our last names. We imagine “Smith” to be one way, and “Wang” to be another. When you don’t “look like” your last name, it can create anything from mild surprise to major problems. Consider these comments from Shannon’s blog:
Cindy: if you become Shannon Zhao, people you don’t know will assume you are of Asian descent and then do a double take when they see you (like how people assume I’m white).
Jessica: Before I started hyphenating [my name] I used to get lots of people assuming I was Chinese. It was sort of funny, but it got to be be problematic too when I was job searching in China and people saw my last name and assumed I was a local. I started hyphenating precisely because I got sick of having to explain that yes, I am indeed a foreigner, an American, yes, a white American, not a Chinese American (because sadly, in China, if you’re a teacher, it makes a difference). People didn’t want to believe me! If I was back home I don’t think I’d hyphenate because honestly I don’t care if people assume I’m Chinese, but I think here in China it confuses people a bit, especially since Chinese people don’t change their names when they get married.
Professional reasons. If you’re established in your field under a certain name, changing your name can hurt you professionally. People may get confused, and it could be harder for you to link yourself to the accomplishments under your previous name.
Feminist reasons. As one commenter on Shannon’s blog says:
Richard: I think it’s strange that the woman is the one considering changing her name. In this modern age, why not make the man change his name?
Is there middle ground between changing and not? Sure — here are a few options.
Hyphenating. For many women, the best of both worlds — they can keep their maiden name and have their husband’s name at the same time. Still, hyphenating could still mean 1) legal paperwork when traveling (b/c your name is not exactly the same as your husband’s) and 2) professional issues, again, if people are not used to knowing your work under a hyphenated name.
Different names for each country. This was proposed by another commenter on Shannon’s blog:
GAC:…if you use a “Chinese name” — and I understand you may need an official Chinese name to get married — use his surname in Chinese and your own in English. Seems like a compromise.
For Chinese women, you’d do the opposite — keep your Chinese name (in Chinese characters), change your English name. (Chinese women, of course, may face the confusion issue in the US.)
So, You Want To Change. Now What?
Okay, so suppose you do decide to change your name? If you’re in China, what do you do?
For Chinese citizens. From what I read online, changing your name in China can be a frustrating process. You will have to deal with the Public Security Bureau, as these instructions (in Chinese) explain. But the name change is generally only in Chinese, not English — so unless you want to see a Chinese or pinyin version of your foreign last name (mine, last I checked, was “Aikenboge”), don’t bother.
In many cases, you’re probably better off leaving her Chinese name as-is, and simply changing her name in your country — especially if you’re planning on living there. For example, here is a thread from Candle for Love on how to do it while applying for a US green card or fiancee visa. Citizens of other countries, check with your embassy or consulate for more information.
For foreign citizens. If you want to change your name in China, it’s possible — read how Ericka, the Shandongxifu, did it.
Of course, you’ll also want to change it in your own country. This varies, so check with your embassy or consulate for instructions. As an example, here’s what Americans can expect:
…the first thing you need to do is contact the US Embassy or Consulate in your country of residence to ensure that you can be issued a new passport after you change your name. She says that it’s usually not a problem, but that glitches do happen and one should always check with the Embassy for *anything* relating to the disposition of one’s passport.
Once you’ve confirmed that, you will need to contact the courts in
your city of residence to apply for a legal name change through their system. Although you are a US citizen, you are bound by the laws of your country of residence, so any legal matters must be handled through *their* court system – you cannot change your name “by remote” through the US courts. The Embassy or Consulate will assist you in contacting the relevant courts.
Once your name change is complete, you will need to contact the Embassy or Consulate again to apply for a new passport. You’ll need to have your current passport and a document from the court in your country of residence certifying that you have undergone a legal name change….
To change or not change? You have to decide, just as everyone in a cross-cultural marriage in China does. The answers aren’t clear when you’re between cultures and traditions. Still, on the other hand, there’s the opportunity to move beyond simple decorum and choose for yourself.
Now that’s a change.
Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.