When we first moved to America, I remember my mother taking us with her when she went to the DMV to change her name. For the longest time, I thought she was getting my father’s last name, her married name, added to her license. “Maybe that couldn’t be done in Hong Kong,” I remember thinking to myself. Later, when I asked her why all none of her documents said “Mrs. Osborn” on them, she told me she had never taken my father’s name legally. That trip to the DMV was to make her English first name her legal first name in America; her Chinese name became her middle name.
It’s not Chinese custom for women to change their names; she explained to me. Her mother-in-law — my father’s mother, my grandmother — fought her decision to keep her maiden name as her only name. But my mother refused to change her mind. “How could I reject my culture like that?” she asked, when I wanted to know why keeping her name was so important to her. Because Chinese names begin with the last name and English ones don’t, she had to legalize her English first name in order for American institutions to list her full name correctly. But her last name, her family name, never changed.