Smith, Smith-Wong, Wong-Smith, or Wong? The Case of the “Miss-ing” Surname9 min read

28 November, 2009 0 comment

Undeniably, ignorance is all around us, and one’s surname is not excluded from social stereotyping. Wed to Alex Chu for 30 years, Maria Chu is not who you may think she is: at first glance, what do you think of her ethnicity? For those who have seen the Seinfeld episode with a character by the name of ‘Donna Chang’, you will see where this is headed. Here’s another situation. When Maria went in for a job interview, she was greeted with a confused stare. The interviewer said, “You’re not Chinese”. She replied, “No”.

“People are ignorant,” Maria said. “It should be taken with a grain of salt.”

At the end of the interview, she did get the job based on bona fide occupational qualifications. To clarify her identity, her resume is now hyphenated with her maiden name. Her decision to take on her husband’s surname upon marriage was a balanced decision between personal choice and respecting tradition. Alex, who is Chinese, and Maria who is part Native Canadian, Irish and Ukrainian are both very happy with the final decision. She says her last name does not identify her. “I identify me.” Personal choice and following tradition – check and check.

Whether personal choice or following tradition, Senior Instructor Arlene Sindelar at the University of British Columbia’s History department explained that surnames, particularly before the fourteenth century in England, were not inheritable or consistent. “Surnames and bynames changed for many people as their conditions changed; moving to a new place, taking on a new occupation or position, buying or inheriting title to land all affected how they were named at any particular time.” As with the Chinese, English women were often identified by their status relative to men: “Daughter of…, wife of…, late the wife of…” added Dr. Sindelar. Some of these names could have been: Matilda, daughter of Robert le Carpenter; Isabella, wife of Robert de Pampesworth; or Ellen Hellebole, his mistress, from whom she rented her house.

Nonetheless, surnames could be indicative of power and property, said Sindelar. In this case, “the elite passed on names and titles that indicated their property and power, whether it came from the female or male side.”

Following Dr. Sindelar’s explanation, a surname is a form of identity and shows one’s relationship to another. However, as Maria discovered, a surname could have societal drawbacks—like finding a job. Nonetheless, “my surname should not make or break who I am,” she said.

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“If she’s married to me, I know she’s married to me. I don’t need my last name that pulls on her to say that…you’re my property.”

When it comes to tying the knot and tying the marriage by a common surname, newly-wed couple Joanna Huang and Robert Mitchell are not ones to follow tradition. “If she’s married to me, I know she’s married to me. I don’t need my last name that pulls on her to say that…you’re my property,” said Robert.

Recently wed on October 2, 2009, this couple only spent five to ten minutes discussing Joanna’s decision whether or not to legally take on her husband’s surname. Joanna is the youngest of three sisters. Luckily for her, she has two older sisters who paved the way for her—making personal choice an actual option in all her life decisions. “Both of my sisters married Caucasians. One of them changed their name, the other didn’t”, Joanna continued “the family basically said…it’s up to you.”

However, as a Chinese-Canadian, she said if she were to marry another Chinese-Canadian, both of their families may push her to change her last name to his. “I figured that I’m an adult, and I’m educated. As long as it’s thought out, I’m not going to bow down to what’s culturally acceptable.” Deciding to adopt Robert’s surname socially and being known as Joanna Mitchell or Joanna Huang-Mitchell instead of changing all her legal documents was simply a matter of convenience and not so much about her personal identity. Personal choice – check.

In Ontario and most other provinces excluding Quebec, upon marriage, newlyweds have three choices: keep their maiden name, assume their spouses’ name, or elect to change their surname. According to the Ontario government, the most popular option is to assume a spouse’s name since it’s not a legal name change. In this case, the birth certificate remains the same. The alternative option is to elect for a surname change, which would legally change the name on all legal documents including the birth certificate.

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