“Do what you want,” Kyle said. “But I bet that if we did a study, we would find that the incidence of divorce is higher for women who don’t take their husband’s last name for than those who do.”
It was a Saturday morning in 1994. My fiancé was driving me from Center City Philadelphia to Reading so I could go outlet shopping, willing to accompany me on a pastime he did not enjoy. Knowing I was repaying his kindness by dredging up an argument we’d been having since our engagement, I trod lightly.
“I’m not so sure. Even if we did, there’s no causality... Keeping your name doesn’t cause divorce,” I said.
“Maybe not, but I bet there’s a correlation. It shows that the woman is not as committed to the marriage.”
He was a management consultant and I was a doctoral student, so bringing up hypotheses and data was not uncommon in our debates. Yet, I couldn’t have predicted that after winning an eight-year war with my parents, we would be battling over my name.
“But, you know I’m committed to you,” I said.
Kyle and I met during new student week during my freshman year in college. He was the good-looking sophomore I spotted across the first dorm mixer. Holding a large stein of beer and surrounded by a group of friends, he was wearing an Atsugi baseball jersey. The relic from an obscure team in Japan still hangs in the back of our closet, surviving many attempts to Kondo-ize our packed NYC apartment because it still “sparks joy” for me.
Because Kyle is Japanese, it took time to win my parents’ approval. To this day, Koreans freely express hatred for their 40-year long oppressors with no one to correct for their prejudice. You can find examples of this toxic bias in nearly every K-Drama. In one of the most popular Netflix series, Crash Landing on You, North and South Korean soccer fans unite while watching a match against the Japanese. Given Kyle’s easy personality and accomplishments, he would have been welcomed into welcomed into any girlfriend’s home. Instead, from mine, he was shunned.
We pleaded, then hid. We came forward. I was disowned. Neither of us wanted to elope, so we persisted.
My father finally relented. He gave Kyle his blessing over a long-distance phone call, but also asked for patience as my mother needed more time.
“Just don’t come home with a Japanese name,” my mother said. She never repeated those words again, but she didn’t need to. They haunted me.
My attempts to get her excited about the wedding by involving her in the planning backfired. She wanted a big wedding in Seoul. But to accommodate guests from both the mainland US and Korea, we had settled on Kyle’s hometown, Honolulu. She didn’t care for the minimal flower arrangements I wanted. It concerned her that our photographer would only be shooting in black and white. To appease her, I gave up on letting my friends choose their own little black dresses and instead accepted bridesmaids’ gowns from her friend as a wedding gift.
“They’re already wearing matching ensembles for you, Mom,” I said.
“If they all have different shoes, it’ll look messy. It’s disrespectful to the designer,” she said.
“My friends are spending a lot of money to travel to Hawaii. I can’t ask them to buy new pumps. Plus, they’ll be more comfortable,” I replied.
I remembered too late that she always chose heels over comfort — and hated that I didn’t.
Keeping my name was her last hold-out. Women in Korea keep their family name when they marry, not as a sign of feminism but out of respect for their fathers. When my mother moved to the US with my father, she was forced to change her surname to his.
She didn’t want that for me. She wanted her husband’s legacy to live on with me, and not just with my younger brother and his future children. I loved her for that. We both knew that shoes and flowers would long be forgotten, but my name mattered.
“You know I would have given up my family for you,” I said to Kyle.
“Yes, but it sends the wrong message.”
To whom? I thought. And, what might that message be? What would people think?
“If I take your last name, people will assume I’m Japanese,” I said.
“That’s ridiculous. You’re so Korean. No one can change that. Besides, who cares what strangers think?”
He was right, even with the You’re so Korean, which was code for You’re so stubborn. But I couldn’t help but think of the Japanese forcefully renaming all Koreans during their occupation. If my deceased grandparents could have attended our wedding, they would probably be more fluent in Japanese than the many third- and fourth-generation Japanese-American guests in attendance. Their native language was forbidden in public.
“Well, how would you feel if you had to change your name to ‘Kim’? Would you be OK with people thinking you were Korean?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. I watched him as he stared at the road ahead. There was nothing there that needed his attention. He was thinking. I held my breath. His silence fed my hope.
Eventually: “I wouldn’t change my name. I can’t ask you to change yours.”
And, that was it. He changed his mind. He never brought it up again. Moreover, he never doubted the fidelity of women who kept their names.
Kyle was like that, is still like that. Once something makes logical sense to him, he changes long-held beliefs in an instant.
He got his data.
I got my family, my love, and my name.
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