Tag Archives: change

What’s in a Name? – Name Change in International Marriages

So, you’ve decided to get married to Mr Li, Zhang or Wang. Congratulations! But, what are you going to do be called from then on?

It’s a big question, and one that can have unexpected repercussions on your life.

Chinese Traditionally Don’t Change Their Surname

It gets all the more confused when the traditions in your native country differ from the ones of your husband. In China for example, it isn’t a thing for the woman to change her surname to her husband’s name at all. Rather, she keeps her own family name, since the most important aspect of getting married in China is it gives you the green light to have a baby, and secure the continuation of the family bloodline. His family bloodline.

That is why usually the child will be named after the father. Only if the father has married into a more powerful/richer family, could there be an insistence from her family to choose their surname. However, this amounts to a serious loss of face, it’s a practical emasculation for said man. In many cases, if a couple gets divorced and the child stays with the mother, it is also not uncommon for her to change the child’s surname to her own. So, in China, while there’s at least no discussion about whose surname to take, there still can be a lot of politics surrounding the child’s name.

I am not a fan of not changing your name at all for a number of reasons. From my Western perspective the keeping of the wife’s surname felt very at odds with the general idea in China that the woman becomes part of her husband’s family upon marriage. It felt to me like a way of making sure the woman knows she has to serve her “new family” while at the same time not even granting her the right to fully become part of the family; even by name. But that might just be my cynical interpretation.

Name Change in Europe – So Many Different Options

In Germany and England, my countries of origin, there is an array of different options of what to do with your name once you get married. Traditionally, of course the woman would take on the man’s name, as she joined his family. However, following the feminist movement and increasing independence of women, some have equated this to a submissive act from the woman’s side, and so it’s now quite common to hyphenate both surnames. In few cases, the man might even take his wife’s name – although I’ve never met anyone who did this – and then there’s of course the option of going “Chinese” and no one changing any of their names at all, in which case you wouldn’t know they were married in the first place. This is becoming more common as people can’t be bothered to deal with the ridiculous paperwork associated with changing one’s name. However, I still prefer the idea of Mr Li and I somehow indicating our not-so-holy union.

My History with a Boringly Common Surname 

In my case, since we got married in China, there was never really any question about whether or not I wanted to change my name. Ironically, I did. Having grown up with both the most common first AND last names you could imagine in Germany, I have always been keen to swap my last name for something more “fancy”. For the longest time, I wanted to take on my mum’s maiden name – Nutchey – which I’m told is connected to our family’s Spanish heritage. That’s way better than being known as the German equivalent of Smith – and therefore instantly identifiable as German as well, I thought.

Anyway, 18 came and went, and I kind of put that wish to the side, thinking that you never know who I’d end up marrying. They might have a seriously cool name, after all!

What Does Taking on an Asian Surname Mean

Enter Mr Li. And with him the question of what to do with our names once we were married. I had a discussion with some fellow WWAM (AMWF) friends about this topic and it brought quite a few interesting and some disturbing truths to light.

If you were, say, to take on just your husband’s name, this could affect you in the workplace and sometimes in a negative way. If a recruiter reads a very Chinese sounding surname on your CV, they might assume that you are Chinese and in some cases, the sad truth is, that might lead them to think you are no native speaker and not up to the job. We like to think that people are wiser than to assume such things, but the sad truth is that this isn’t always the case.

The same goes for Mr Li taking on my surname and then appearing at interviews. I remember the painful story of a friend with African heritage who passed a phone interview stage for a job in a European country, and when she came in for the interview, the surprise of the interviewers that she was able to speak the local language was evident – she had grown up in said country. People are quick to make assumptions, it’s a bitter truth.

Mr Li and his Relationship with his Chinese Surname

In our case, there is actually another layer to the whole name debate. Like me, Mr Li has also been considering whether or not to change his surname irrespective of getting married, since he is the child of a broken home. However, his mother decided not to change his surname to hers, and so he is still named after his father, with whom he has always had a rocky relationship and in the end broke off contact.

His surname is therefore the only reminder of the ties to his paternal family. He even came to a point when he told his grandmother on his father’s side he planned to take on his mum’s surname Feng. She broke out in tears. He hasn’t changed his name yet, mostly I believe due to his attachment to that grandmother, who looked after him until the age of 6.

Coming Together To Create Something New

In light of all these feelings, we had many discussions about what to do about our surnames. Laura Li? I liked the ring to it, (Mr Li thinks it’s sounds like a porn name, harr harr), but for both CV and father-in-law I put that one to rest fairly early. Mr Li played with the idea of taking on my name but that would also mean giving up his Chinese heritage in a way, and I didn’t like that (aside from still wanting to flush a certain common surname down the drain).

The next idea was to return to the Nutchey option. I wasn’t entirely happy though with the idea of just my culture being represented in our surnames. So, a combination was in order. In light of the initial idea of Mr Li to take on his mum’s name, and with Nutchey being my mum’s maiden name, the surname Nutchey-Feng came into existence. Also, when he mentioned to his mother the idea of taking on my mum’s maiden name, she wasn’t what you’d call pleased.

In the end, this is the surname that represents both our origins and very fittingly makes you think of nutter and fengzi (which means crazy in Chinese). Couldn’t think of a more appropriate choice, could you?

So there we have it, Nutchey-Feng, the surname we would like to one day legally take on; and the very lengthy explanation as to how it came about. You know me, words…there’s just so many of them. And they’re fun to use.

Now the only hurdle is to get the authorities in one of my home countries to agree to this name change…yeah, that’ll be easy, I’m sure of it…

What did you do with your surname? Let me know in the comments!


Has China Changed Me? Reflecting on Flexibility, Finance and Food

Recently watching Whisky Tango Foxtrott (great movie btw, Tina Fey, you are my hero) and all this talk of the “Kabubble” inspired me to take a close look at myself and how my behaviour has changed after three years in China and…what would you call it? The Bebble? The Beijubble? I’ll have to work on that. Anyway, without much ado, here are the main ways in which being in China and with a Chinese husband have changed both my thoughts and actions.

1. The Value of Family 

When I was 18 I couldn’t wait to get out of Germany and see the world. I was never a person to miss home easily when there were so many wonders to be discovered. Being in China has changed my outlook in this regard at least a little. I would now consider moving back to Germany, a country I had thought I had turned my back on forever, partly because it would mean being closer to my family. Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental. But mostly it’s China. The importance of family here and the value placed on it has increased the value I place on my own family in my life. Tough to my husband’s dismay that doesn’t necessarily relate to a number of his more…shall we say interesting…relatives. And while we are being honest they are probably the main reason I appreciate how normal and drama free my own childhood was.

2. Opportunity for Pickiness 

Career-wise I think moving to China was both a blessing and a curse in disguise. Having had little practical experience in journalism, I would have never been able to find such work in the UK. China gave me a start into written journalism and then the opportunity to work for the country’s largest broadcaster. To be perfectly honest the main reason is my Caucasian descent, which in the past equaled unimaginable opportunities in China (as more talented people flood into the Land of the Dragon this trend is starting to shift). Being able to speak the local language also helps of course. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that now I have tasted blood and want to stay in this line of work – and I feel I am entitled to pursue this career dream – something I would never even have dared consider back in Europe. It won’t make life easier, that’s for sure. But if it works out, it will be a whole lot more fun.

3. Diverging from the Discourse 

Being in China, a communist-run country, has definitely changed my views on the world. It has enabled me step out of the fairly limited discourse that exists in the West, including such broad statements that communist leadership is straight out of hell or Chinese people have no freedom of expression whatsoever and see that the truth is a little bit more nuanced than that. I do know that even so much as suggesting that there are some things the leadership in China aren’t bad at is probably as disturbing to most Western ears as the comments I get from countless Chinese who hear I’m German: “Oh yeah, Hitler. Great guy!” But it just takes a simple look at Chinese high speed railway infrastructure, which I maintain is among the best in the world, to realise they must be doing something right.
Ironically, although I wouldn’t call myself the biggest fan of certain political realities, my more favourable opinion of at least some aspects of China’s policies often means I automatically get pushed into the “Defender of China” role. Hello, I am DOC, the latest super hero on the block. JK. Or am I? It is quite frustrating to see how just mentioning the idea that maybe there are also positive sides to something that is seen as Satan’s spawn in democratic and individualist cultures always ends up with me sounding like a propaganda machine.

4. Lazy Eater? No more!

Growing up in the West I was such a lazy eater. What I hated most was dealing with any food that needed to be “handled” in the slightest way before stuffing it in my mouth. Peeling prawns to me was some kind of cruel joke. What? I’m meant to work for my food? Preposterous!!
In China, unless you want to miss out on some of the best dishes, you can’t afford to be such a choosy chewer. Peeling the hull (is it a hull? Or skin? Or armour? Who knows!) off a scampi with my bare teeth and chopsticks is now the least of my problems as I enthusiastically munch away on splintered chicken bones and suck meat out of little crayfish legs I have sardonically ripped off the poor creature.
No more mashed potatoes and creamed soups. Three years in China mean I get down and dirty when it comes to dinner time. Right down to the bone. My mum must be so proud of me.

5. Flexibility or Chaos?

There was once a time when I could hardly imagine that planning a holiday two days in advance and deciding what to do on a weekend on that actual weekend would ever occur to me. In traditional German fashion I was on track to become the Organisator. Hasta la vista, baby; but at 3:30pm exactly please, and no minute later.

In China life just isn’t like that. I can’t help but chuckle with amusement when my mum (an honorary German of almost 40 years) is non-plussed at the fact that our plans change more often than our underwear. As you can imagine this makes planning a Sino-German wedding akin to walking over a patch of glass shards. If you are not a yogi master, you are going to get hurt. My mum calls it chaos, we prefer to think of it as flexibility. It’s the only way to stay sane. I plan to write more on cross-cultural wedding escapades soon. Let’s see how long that lasts. Oh, time to change my underwear.

6. Money Talk

It wasn’t till I was out at dinner with some “old outsiders” (Get it? Get it? If not, look up Laowai) that I noticed how drastically my small talk has changed. When a colleague mentioned they recently purchased a new item, my first question was not what colour, what model or any technical specs but rather “How much?”. “You’re so Chinese, Laura” was the exasperated answer and with a flash of surprise I realized they were right.

I do not feel ashamed to ask people for their salaries anymore – probably something I need reign in when back in Europe. Does this automatically mean I am money obsessed or that the pink papers with Mr Mao’s glorious features are the only thing that matters to me? I wouldn’t say so; but I do appreciate Chinese realism concerning finance. I mean, call me cynical, but what’s the point of having your dream career if at the end of the day you can’t even pay the rent for a fridge-sized flat. We tend to like to pretend back in Europe that money doesn’t matter. It does folks. Deal with it.

7. Hot Water, Holy Water

I know, I know. It’s the obvious one but still I think it deserves mention. No matter whether it’s 40 or -40 degrees outside, every Chinese restaurant will serve you free HOT water, always. In the office and at every single “water cooler” in the country you have the options of either tastebud-scorcher or “cold”, and by cold I mean room temperature. It’s to do with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the idea that hot water cools you down.

During my recent trip to Germany I found myself bordering on a breakdown at the fact that getting at plain hot water was about as easy as trying to climb Mount Everest in high heels. It just ain’t gonna happen. Now, it might have been the placebo effect but I genuinely felt miserable for the first few days and I put it down to mostly a lack of hot water. Certainly not jet lag or airplane induced cold.

8. Accepting the Unacceptable

Especially being in an intercultural relationship forces you to be more accepting of behaviour that doesn’t conform with your own culture. If it doesn’t, I’m guessing the relationship won’t be lasting very long.
It is easy in such a relationship for both sides to overlook how accepting your opposite has actually become of your cultural quirks, because to you they are totally normal.

Point in case: I think the moment of revelation of just how much my accept-o-meter has risen occurred when I returned from a trip to Germany to find that my MIL had gone through the entire flat and rearranged everything. Including my underwear. Now I have discovered through much discussion that this a) is not necessarily exclusively a Chinese MIL phenomenon, there are other cultures and households where this might happen, and b) the male species finds the idea of mummy in law folding their undies and rearranging their entire closet not that unappealing.

Maybe I’m just a territorial German b***h but I can assure you that I think I deserve an award for biting my tongue so hard it almost ended up being my dinner. I am convinced that 90% of my European friends would have gone batshit crazy at what can and would be considered a gross invasion of privacy in many a European country. Ironically it’s not the first time this has happened. But that’s a story for another time.

In the meantime, keep calm and rearrange the closet. But only once MIL is gone.

Well, this is all I can think of for now. How about you? How as your accept-o-meter changed since you have been in China? And how many crayfish can you take apart in one minute? Would love to hear your stories!