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The unexpected sadness of taking my husband's white last name

July 11, 2018 1:33 pm

I changed my last name after I got married. As in, immediately after I got married. My husband and I eloped on a Sunday. By Monday, I’d become Lydia Mack. M-A-C-K. Just four easy letters, no follow-up questions. (How do you spell that? Can you pronounce that again? Where were you born?)

While other little kids may have dreamt about the perfect man or the perfect wedding, I spent most of my young life dreaming about a pretty white last name — one that teachers didn’t butcher over the loud speaker at school, one that didn’t leave me waiting helplessly as receptionists at doctor’s offices stumbled over each letter in my Thai last name: Siriprakorn.

I loved easy white last names. I used to try them on for size, saying them out loud to myself just to get a taste: Whitaker. Carter. Timberlake. They rolled off the tongue, unlike my lengthy surname that, to me, sounded like chewing a mouth full of wood chips. My brothers might be stuck with Siriprakorn, but I always knew I had a way out: marriage.

It’s worth noting that, as a feminist, I briefly wrestled with this. Had I not already lived with a last name that spawned unsolicited conversations about a stranger’s love of pad thai — had strangers not constantly asked me questions like, “Where are you from?” or “What kind of last name is that?” — then I would have been happy to stay Lydia Siriprakorn. After all, in principle, I don’t believe women should take a man’s last name simply for the sake of an archaic tradition. And as most married and divorced women know, the process of legally changing your name is more than just a pain in the ass – it’s changing your identity. A woman’s life is punctuated by the before and after: single to married, maiden to matron. And while a name change can be a chance to start anew, it can also mean the loss of our own history.

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Yet even for an opinionated woman of principle like me, I must admit the freedom that a name change afforded me felt well worth caving to the patriarchy…just this once.

Immediately, making dinner reservations became a breeze. Customer service calls to Time Warner were cut in half. No one asks me where I’m from. No one shares their adventures in Thai cooking with me in line at Target. The days of dreading roll call in school — the piercing sound of hearing my last name butchered year after year — was nothing but a distant memory now.

And then, of course, there were the professional implications. Studies and experiments have shown that recruiters and hiring managers (knowingly or unknowingly, but that’s another issue) discriminate against candidates with foreign or “ethnic-sounding” names. In the years of mindless job applications that followed after college, I often wondered how my impossible-to-pronounce (or non-white) last name really factored into a competitive pool of thousands of applicants. Enough to scroll past my name in their inbox? Enough to deter a recruiter from picking up the phone to call me?

The issue reared its ugly head again later when I became a published writer. I stared at my first printed byline, full of pride for a fleeting moment. But my joy was interrupted when I realized that readers would have an easier time remembering my name if it was something smooth and silky: Glover. Clooney. Gosling. Everyone I mentioned this to thought I was crazy or laughed it off, yet no one can seem to explain why my website traffic virtually doubled after I changed my last name to Mack.

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Over time, the emotional load of shedding Siriprakorn has lightened exponentially, but I’ll admit there was one day, early in my marriage, that gave me unexpected pause.

A few weeks after my husband and I eloped, I received a text from my dad. He was preparing to mail me a package; I gave him our new address. I soon learned that nothing in life had prepared me for the moment my father asked, “What is your new last name?” And I wasn’t ready for the bizarre wave of emotions that followed once the package arrived a few days later.

I stared at my new name written in my father’s familiar, almost illegible doctor handwriting: Lydia Mack.

I wondered what that must have felt like for him, for a father to write his daughter’s new white name for the very first time. And for a second, I felt a little less like his daughter and a little more sadness for having lost Siriprakorn.