Nobody Needs to Change Their Name When They Marry

The essay “Why Don’t More Men Take Their Wives’ Last Names?” at The Atlantic opens like this:

In the run-up to marriage, many couples, particularly those of a more progressive bent, will encounter a problem: What is to be done about the last name?

Some have attempted work-arounds: the Smiths and Taylors who have become Smith-Taylors, Taylor-Smiths, or—more creative—Smilors. But there just isn’t always a good, fair option. (While many straight couples fall back on the option of a woman taking her husband’s last name, same-sex couples have no analogous default.)

Notice the option not mentioned? Nobody changing their surname upon marriage. And nowhere does the essay mention the possibility (except in the most indirect way). I suppose there may a situation where each spouse keeping their original surname is not a “good, fair option” but I cannot think of any such situation.

(I have since learned that both the essay writer and her fiancé intend to keep their original surnames when they marry, so she obviously knows that it is an option. The only reason I can think of that she did not bring it up in the essay is because she was trying to keep the word count low.)

I’ve spent several years in Taiwan, where (except for some indigenous people and foreigners) practically nobody changes their surname when they marry. And quite a bit of the fiction I’ve read in the past decade has been in Chinese and set in societies where, not only do people not change their surnames when they marry, they don’t even think about changing their surnames when they marry.

And some of Taiwan’s indigenous groups have very distinct naming traditions, such as the Tao people, who change their name, not when they marry, but when they have their first child (the parents take the child’s name), and then they change their name again when they have their first grandchild. Basically, in traditional Tao society, children aren’t named after their parents, parents/grandparents are named after their eldest child/grandchild.

And there is this interesting essay by an American woman in Taiwan who decided to change her surname to her husband’s name, even though it goes against Taiwanese conventions. Though I don’t know why she says this: “I’m not sure why name-changing never caught on in Taiwan” – why would she expect wives-taking-their-husband’s names to ever catch on in Taiwan? What reason would the Taiwanese have had to change? (Okay, yes, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire for about 50 years, but apparently the Japanese were uninterested in changing this aspect of Taiwanese culture).

In Sinophone societies, if a mother and child have the same surname, it tends to mean one of the following things 1) the mother is in a ruzhui marriage, 2) the father is unknown or 2) the father and mother have the same surname, (which carries the connotation of incest, even though many Chinese people who have the same surname aren’t related at all, marrying someone with the same surname is still a bit taboo). Even if the parents are not married, if the father is known, the child will take the father’s surname 99% of the time. For example, in The Condor Trilogy (which includes that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog), Mu Nianci is adopted by a man whose surname is Mu, so she take his surname, not the surname of her biological father. She gets a crush on Yang Kang. It then turns out that her adopted father’s real surname is Yang, not Mu, but Mu Nianci chooses to keep the surname ‘Mu’ because, if she has the same surname as Yang Kang, then marrying him would be taboo. It turns out that they never marry (at least in the original novel, they get married in some of the TV adaptations), but she does have a child with him, and their child takes the surname Yang because, even though his parents were not married, it is obvious that Yang Kang is his father.

A few years ago I wrote a post culture countershock in Japan. I can add another example of culture countershock to the list I wrote in that post. I met a woman in Hokkaido and learned her full name. I later met her daughter. Then I stumbled across a package which was to be delivered to the daughter, and I saw the daughter’s full name. I was shocked to learn that she had the exact same surname as her mother. You would think this would not be surprising at all, especially since I myself have the same surname as my mother. However, after having been in Taiwan for years, and for years 99% percent of the fiction I read was set in Sinophone societies, I had internalized the idea that mothers and daughters having the same surname is weird.

A few minutes after seeing the daughter’s name, I figured out that in Japanese society women probably take their husbands’ surnames, just like in the traditional/conventional United States. I don’t know why I assumed the Japanese, like the Chinese, almost never change their surnames upon marriage, I guess because Japan is also a traditionally ‘Confucian’ society? But most probably because I had so fully internalized the Sinophone tradition of not even thinking about changing a surname upon marriage, let alone actually changing a surname upon marriage, that I just … did not think about it.

In the letters responding to that essay in The Atlantic, it is pointed out that it is very common for women in India to keep their original surnames after marriage, and that in Quebec, the government requires women to keep their original surnames and they have to petition the courts if they want to take their husband’s surname. Considering the population of India and China, it is very possible that a majority of the world’s people take it for granted that a wife will probably keep her original surname after she marries, and the people who live in societies where women are expected to take their husband’s surnames are actually a minority.

I’ll be honest, I think not changing a surname at marriage is the most sensible choice. I can respect that some people think it is good/important for everyone in a [nuclear] family to have the same surname, but I do not see how that is good or important. My parents don’t have the same surname, and that’s fine. I’ve lived in an entire society (Taiwan) where people don’t change their surnames except for adoption and some exceptional circumstances (unless they belong to certain cultural minorities), and it works just fine. It’s egalitarian. In fact, I think the idea of someone changing their name when the marry makes about as much sense as the Tao tradition of changing their name when they have their first child/grandchild (by that I meant that they are both traditions which can work, but requires people to change their name just because they formed a new relationship with another person, and having people change their names can be confusing). Barring some really unusual circumstance, I am never going to change my surname, whether I marry or not (if I do marry, I’ll let my spouse do whatever they want with their surname).

That said, I also support people having the choice to change their own surname for whatever reason. I may think their reason is silly, but I want people to feel free to do what they want with their surnames even if I think it’s silly. If one wants to change one’s surname because of marriage, fine, if one wants to change one’s surname to ‘Potter’ to express one’s love of the Harry Potter franchise, that’s also fine. I do not judge people who change their surname when they marry, regardless of gender.

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Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 2

Yes, I think the parents described in the editorial are hypocrites, at least in a general way. I would probably have a more nuanced view if I got to know them.

I have some relatives who could be described as affluent white progressive parents, and I think, for the most part, they are not hypocrites with regards to social justice. But they do not behave like the parents described in the editorial. They do send their kids to race-and-class diverse public schools, some of them used to live with their kids in a neighborhood with plenty of non-affluent African-American neighbors (which, um, gentrification, but that’s different from the issues raised in the editorial) and I’ve seen that their kids’ peer groups is also diverse, and based on listening to their kids talk about social justice issues, I think they’ve done as much to pass on social justice values as is possible for affluent white people.

I believe the parents described in the editorial are sincerely in favor of progressive changes which do not threaten their privilege, but when their is a conflict between preserve their privilege and pursuing social justice, they clearly choose to preserve their privilege. If they actually cared about racial and class diversity, they would send their children to public schools and get involved in school politics to improve those school. As a public school parent, my mother was able to make a few very small improvements to San Francisco’s public school system. If she had been a private school parent she would have been too far outside the public school system to do anything meaningful.

And I do not think that social justice values is the only way they are hypocrites. They claim that they want their children to have the best education possible. Yet, based on what I read between the lines in that editorial, that’s not what they are doing. They are trying to improve their children’s social standing, not their intellectual or personal development.

First of all, I think there is an educational benefit to being around students of diverse backgrounds. That includes, but is not limited to race and class diversity. As a teenager, I attended a summer boarding school which had an admission policy of having student body which represented all of the regions of California, with a slight tilt in favor of students from rural regions which offered fewer summer education options. It was the first time in my life I got spend a lot of time with peers who weren’t from San Francisco. Exposure to that geographical diversity expanded my horizons.

I think the greater benefit of diverse schools is not the passing on social justice values, but the fact that people from different backgrounds tend to have different points of view, and being exposed to many points of view is good for developing independent thinking skills. By not sending their children to diverse schools or putting them in diverse environments, they are denying their children that benefit.

Beyond that, it seems that these parents are choosing their private schools for prestige and exclusivity, not because they have verified that these private schools actually offer better education. It is very difficult to compare the education quality at public and private schools, but the studies with the largest sample sizes find that, when you control for socio-economic background, private schools do not offer better educational outcomes than public schools.

That is not to say that all private schools are primarily for entrenching/advancing elite privilege. There are many kinds of private schools. Yes, I think there are situations where attending a private school may be the better choice for intellectual/personal development, as well as situations where, even if the private school does not provide a better education than public schools, it has some other advantage which justifies the cost.

Though if it is one of those high schools which charge $40,000/yr for tuition – and San Francisco has some of those – I cannot imagine any advantage which justifies that cost; even if it were the best high school in the world AND the only high school in all of San Francisco AND I had that money on hand, at that price I would choose homeschooling, and if I were so wealthy that $40,000/yr was pocket change, I would rather hire a bunch of really good tutors than send my kid to high school. Okay, I can imagine ONE situation where paying more than $40,000/yr for high school tuition would be worth it; my child has special needs due to disability which I absolutely cannot meet with homeschooling and that super-expensive high school is the only way to meet those needs.

However, the real tell for me is this line from the editorial: “One boy said proudly, ‘My school is not for everyone’ — a statement that reflected how thoroughly he’d absorbed his position in the world in relation to others.” Okay, yes, it is impossible for a school to be right for absolutely everyone, therefore no school is for everyone, but clearly that was not the boy’s point. It’s seems that these parents are choosing schools for their exclusivity, to signal that heir children have the means to enter schools which less privileged kids cannot. I cannot find the essay, but I recall reading a piece by Alfie Kohn which argued that, if a private school really wants to prove that they offer superior education, they need to do admissions by lottery, and then produce better education outcomes than other schools. If a private school gets to cherry-pick students, it’s not proving that it provides a better education, it is just proving that it knows how to choose better students.

I think for some private school parents – including the ones described in the editorial, the point is not to actually provide a better education, but to have those schools mark their child as being ‘superior’ by admitting them while rejecting ‘lesser’ children. It is also why some people prefer to attend colleges with lower admission rates – admission rate does not say much about educational quality, but being able to say ‘nyah nyah, I was one of the 5% who was able to get into this famous exclusive college where most of the lower division classes are taught by underpaid graduate students with little teaching experience’ is a much more prestigious social marker than ‘I got into this college with wonderful experienced teachers which has a 100% admission rate’.

(And obviously, private schools select heavily for income/wealth, especially the ones which charge higher tuition and/or offer less financial aid).

You remember that summer boarding school I mentioned? Not only did my parents not help me get in, they were opposed to me attending it, it was harder to convince them to let me go than in was to get admitted to that school, and I had to pay for the tuition myself (as a 15-year-old, when I was not eligible for financial aid because of my family’s income). But in the end, I’m glad that summer school experience was something that I made happen rather than something that my parents handed to me on a platter. My parents almost did me a favor by being an obstacle (though that is not how I interpreted the situation at the time).

If the parents described in the editorial really are doing things like arranging ‘coveted summer internships’ for their children, than means that their children are not learning how to go out on their own and seek their own opportunities. And that disturbs me for than their social justice hypocrisy.

Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 1

I recently read the editorial “White Progressive Parents and Conundrum of Privilege” and a lot of it rings true based on my experience.

One of the clearest bits of evidence that San Francisco is not actually a progressive city is to point out that a higher percentage of K-12 students are in private schools than any other metro area in USA (or at least it did when I was in high school, apparently San Francisco fell to third place, though it seems that it is still true that about one fourth of all K-12 students in San Francisco are in private school).

I remember, when I went to Museum of African American History and Culture in Natchez, Mississippi, and I told the man who worked there that I was from San Francisco, his reaction was not ‘wow, you come from such an progressive and enlightened city’ but ‘wow, San Francisco has the most racially segregated school system in the country.’ And I did not argue with him because I knew he was probably right. One of the main mechanisms for maintaining the high level of racial segregation is the private school system (though there are also mechanisms within the public school system itself which contribute to segregation).

I was a bit of an anomaly, because my parents are white and had the financial means to send me to private school, yet they sent me to public school for all of my K-12 education. Very few white parents with the financial means in San Francisco did this. That meant most of my classmates came from families with less socioeconomic privilege, including my white classmates. I know that some of my white classmates would have definitely been sent to private school if their parents had the money to cover tuition. My most affluent white classmates often had attended private school for some years, and then their parents decided to switch to a public school. I would not say that being different from my classmates in this way was a bad thing – in fact, I think most of them did not realize how much money my parents actually had – but it led to some odd experiences.

When I was in high school, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles about San Francisco’s education system. Many of the articles focused on the differences between public and private schools. I noticed that, even though the articles quoted many parents who said they chose private school for their children, none of those parents provided evidence that private schools offered a better education (and the articles also did not find any evidence that students learn better in private schools than in public schools). The only parent who actually had first hand knowledge of both private schools and public schools because he sent one child to private schools and another child to public schools said that the public schools offered a better education, and that he regretted sending his older child to private school.

After I discussed these articles with my mother, she said “private school parents don’t actually care about the quality of education, that’s why they don’t check whether private schools offer a better education, they just want to keep their kids away from black kids”.

I don’t think my mother’s assessment is entirely fair, since I have met quite a few people who attended private school in San Francisco for at least a few years, and I learned something about their parents (though since these were mostly the parents of students who eventually ended up in public school, they probably are not representative). But I do agree with her that these parents actually care more about social image/status than whether or not their children are learning a lot in school, though many of them do not seem to understand the difference between a prestigious education and an education which actually develops a student’s intellectual potential.

And I think the public schools might even be safer than the private schools. When talking to some former students of private schools in San Francisco, I found some of the things they described rather scary (though I might be biased by the fact that most of these students later ended up in a public school; students who find themselves in danger at a private school are probably much more likely to transfer out). I suspect that the illusion of safety at private schools might actually make them more dangerous. A lot of people are concerned about safety at public schools and there is a lot of scrutiny; a lot less people pay attention to safety issues at private schools.

That said, the private schools are definitely better for making social connections and offering opportunities which can entrench/increase a child’s privileges. I’ll give a specific example: one of my high school classmates was admitted to Harvard. It was a big deal because a) my high school was small, so everyone knew this guy and b) he was the first student at my high school to be admitted to Harvard. He later found out why he was the first, and told us about it; that was the first year that Harvard admissions actually bothered to read applications from students at my high school. If he had graduated just a year earlier, the Harvard people would have tossed out his application unread, and he would have had zero chance of getting into Harvard. That was because my high school was a public school in San Francisco that wasn’t Lowell. Previously, with regards to applicants from San Francisco, Harvard’s policy had been to only read applications from private school students and Lowell students (Lowell is the top-rated public high school in San Francisco). The year he applied, Harvard decided finally read applications from students from other San Francisco public high schools. I think that my high school previously had students who were just as qualified to get into Harvard as my classmate who was admitted; it was unfair that they did not have a chance. Hopefully Harvard reads all applications now, but I suspect that there are still other ways that private high school students get unfair advantages (especially social connections).

Speaking of Lowell and racial diversity, I recently read that Lowell only has eight African American students in its class of 2018. I was surprised. I looked through one of my old yearbooks, and counted thirteen African-American students in my graduating class (not including several students whose racial background was not clear based on the photos and I couldn’t remember whether or not they identified as African-American) – and my high school was much smaller than Lowell. (No, I am not in favor of changing Lowell’s admission standards, but based on the article, it seems that their outreach could be significantly improved).

My parents are white, and might even be described as center-left, but they definitely are not progressive. They did not particularly care about racial and class diversity in schools – they would have been totally fine sending me to an all-white-affluent school, but they also did not mind sending me to racially and class diverse schools. So why did they send me to public schools? Both of my parents thought that paying private school tuition would be a waste of money, but it was more than that. My father felt that it was his civic duty to send me to public school. My mother did not care about civic duty, she simply was not convinced that I would receive a better education in private school than in public school, therefore private school tuition was a horrible waste of money.

And my neighborhood? It’s racially mixed (mostly white people and Asian-Americans, but there are also some African-Americans around here and there). The class dynamics in my neighborhood are complicated, so I’ll oversimplify for brevity: there are poor, working class, middle class, and rich people all living within walking distance of my home, but that does not mean we’re socially integrated, we tend to keep our social selves separate from anyone who is more than a notch or two away from us on the class hierarchy. For example, there is an upper class enclave just a ten minute walk from my home, yet I rarely set foot there, and if I did go there and encountered one of the people who live there, it would be awkward because I don’t know how to engage with them.

Ironically, the fact that my parents care a lot less about ‘social justice’ might be why they were more willing to send me to public school than affluent parents who do care about ‘social justice’. The affluent parents who care about ‘social justice’ probably spend a lot of time about thinking about how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so the subconsciously think that they need to keep their kids away from the those unfortunate people in case the bad luck is infectious. In other words, as affluent white people who care about ‘social justice’ they may have be more susceptible to the classist and racist assumption that schools with lots of poor and/or brown students must be worse because that is where the poor and/or brown students are. (And if they discovered that some of those schools with lots of poor and/or brown students are actually good, and that poor and/or brown students are not always to be viewed with pity, it might blow their minds). My parents spend a lot less mental energy obsessing over how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so they did not develop the subconscious feeling that they needed to isolate me from all that.

To be continued…

Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 2

At the end of the last part, I was in relatively bad physical shape, and had a lot of pressure on me to try to make it to town before my physical state became even worse. I was dealing with bad air, pain in my feet, and a cold. I was hoping that at least one of these problems would go away so that the other two problems would be easier to cope with. I had no control over the smoke, I could not make the cold go away no matter how much vitamin C I consumed, I could not fix my feet, but – wait a minute, didn’t I have painkillers in my first aid kit? Maybe they would make the pain in my feet go away, and then I would have solved at least on of my three problems.

Some long-distance hikers take ibuprofen on a regular basis so they can push their bodies past the point where they would otherwise feel too uncomfortable. They tend to call ibuprofen ‘vitamin I’ because they take it so regularly. Me? I have not taken an ibuprofen since I was 17 years old. Actually, that is the only time I recall ever using ibuprofen. I have nothing against hikers using ‘vitamin I’ frequently if that is how they want to hike, but for myself, I only want to push my body as far as it can go in an undrugged state, and I only want to pull out the drugs (other than caffeine) if I’m having problems beyond the ordinary problems of this type of hike.

At this point, I was definitely having more-than-ordinary problems.

There is morning light on the mountain which is a bit reddish with patches of snow, and in the bowl of the mountain there is a lake which is still in the shade and had a reflection of the mountain above.

Dick Lake in the morning

The thing is, I tend to forget that I’m carrying painkillers at all. Even during my miserable date when my feet hurt like hell, it did not occur to me that I could use my painkillers. Since I could not even remember that I am painkillers even when I was in a lot of pain, do you think I’m the kind of hiker who checks her first aid kit before every hike to make sure my medications haven’t expired. HA HA, NOPE! And naturally, ~all of my painkillers were expired~.

However, my acetaminophen pills hand only expired a few months earlier. I figured it was safe to take them, and at worst, it would simply be ineffective, in which case I would be no worse off than before.

It took about twenty minutes for me to feel the difference, but I swear, the expired acetaminophen pills really helped. My feet were still in pain, but it was about 50% less pain, which was a relief. Though the acetaminophen pills did not increase my energy levels (and energy drain was the worst symptom of my cold), it took the edge off some of my other cold symptoms, and that was also nice. I don’t care if it was just a placebo effect, when you are suffering you will gratefully accept a placebo effect if it makes you feel better.

[And if you’re wondering, yes, I’ve replaced all of my medications in my first aid kit, and it is going to be a while before they expire again]

Dick Lake and Lake Fontanallis as seen from near Dick Pass. See that layer of smoke in the air?

The smoke was still worse than I would like, but an improvement over the previous day.

I had not ‘solved’ any of my three big problems, but my three big problems were less bad than they had been the day before. It was time to take advantage of this amelioration to haul myself to a road and get to town.

The first leg was the uphill hike to Dick Pass, which was my biggest uphill of the day. At least I got it out of the way first. Normally I wouldn’t consider it a big deal, but in my condition, I was concerned. It turned out to be not as bad as I expected, and I think that may have been because of the acetaminophen.

A view near Dick Pass.

After Dick Pass, it was mostly downhill.

And I saw some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen on the Pacific Crest Trail. The Desolation wilderness is gorgeous.

In the background is a rust colored mountain with little patches of snow, and below is a dark blue lake surrounded by greenery.

Susie Lake

The lakes were some of the loveliest lakes I’ve seen on the PCT (and I’ve seen some very lovely lakes).

There were also plenty of lovely old growth trees, shaped by the harsh conditions of Desolation Wilderness.

A blue Lake, with granite mountains is the background covered by ribbons of snow.

Heather Lake

Beautiful scenery is not ~quite~ the reason I hike the PCT, but it is always a great morale boost, and I really needed the morale boost this day.

When I got down to the two Echo Lakes, the smoke was a lot worse, but I also knew that I was getting close to a road. I would have liked to go all the way to the highway, but by the time I got to the parking lot at the resort, it was already 6pm, and I was tired (and sick). Luckily, I was able to get a ride in about 10 minutes from nice women from Oregon/North Carolina. Another PCT hiker rode in the same car – he is the first person I ever met who is a Zoroastrian (well, maybe I’ve met other Zoroastrians without knowing they were Zoroastrians). Even though they had a dinner reservation, and the hostel in South Lake Tahoe was a detour for them, they drove us all the way to the hostel (which was great for us, because South Lake Tahoe is a very spread out town).

This is a photo of my foot at the hostel (after I took a shower and washed off the dirt). Those aren’t blisters, my skin simply peeled off, exposing the inner, sensitive layers. When the red parts touched something with any amount of pressure, there was a burning sensation.

There were a lot of PCT hikers at the hostel. Since this was in early August, I knew the NOBO thru-hikers there were not going to make it to Canada without a lot of skipping. Most of them also realized this, though a few of them still had delusions of dramatically increasing their pace so they could reach Canada that year without skipping miles. There are some amazingly fast thru-hikers, but if they were those amazingly fast thru-hikers, they would have reached South Lake Tahoe long before early August on a NOBO thru-hike. I enjoyed very much hanging out with the other PCT hikers, since I knew this was going to be my last direct contact with the PCT community in a while.

The next day, I returned home. My hike ended a lot sooner than planned, but I still covered more than 400 miles, and had a lot of memorable experiences, so I consider it to have been an overall successful trip.