Getting your marriage
license in Alameda County is a fairly painless process as far as bureaucratic
document filings go. You fill out a few brief forms and sign some things for a
clerk. As a parting gift, you get a handy pamphlet advising you and your
beloved to check each other out for genetic disorders. Love is in the air.
Despite the squeaky-floored sterility that comes with government
buildings, there’s an emotional hum in the County Clerk-Recorder's office in downtown Oakland. Women hold bouquets while
family members take photos. Judges in black robes walk around the lobby calling
out couples’ names. Office workers hand you your forms with a surprisingly
But sometimes those well
wishes are served with a side-eye.
When our number was called,
my fiancé and I took our seats at a service desk to complete our license
application. A middle-aged clerk of Asian descent swiftly scanned our documents.
She paused when it came to the section that we had purposefully left blank: the
Name Change section.
“You’re not changing your
name?” she asked me, unable to mask the critical disbelief in her voice.
“Nope,” I said.
She turned the form back to us
to initial that section and verify, once and for all, that I would not go from
a “Kim” to a “Mah.” I wondered if she was concerned that my fiancé was not
going from a “Mah” to a “Kim” either, but the downward glance she gave me –
that slow, deliberate eyeball scan of disapproval -- made me pretty sure that
she wouldn’t appreciate that particular inquiry.
She asked us for our IDs and
reminded me that my driver’s license was expiring soon. “That’s fine,” she
said. “It’s a good time to update it anyway. Oh wait, you’re not changing your
“I can finally update my
address,” I said with feigned joviality, as I inexplicably do around people who
make things awkward.
“Well, at least you can
change something,” she said as she
slid our IDs back to us.
The conversation didn’t ruin
my day or make it any less exciting for my fiancé and me to clear the first
red-tape hurdle in starting our life together. I just had to add it to the
laundry list of questions and comments that people like to sling your way once
they have cursory knowledge of your major life events. From age 18 to 35,
there’s an evolutionary chain of questioning that people are programmed to ask:
“When are you going to pick a school/major/job/spouse/time to have a kid?” I’m
hoping there’s an intermission from 35 to 80 at which point people will just
start asking, “When do you think your heart will pick a time to just finally
For the past year and a
half, all we’ve heard is, “How’s wedding planning going?” I’m not upset; I ask the
same of others in the same rote fashion. On cue, I respond with, “Great. We’re all
The time between our
engagement and the date of our wedding spans a year and a half. We’re not
having a traditional ceremony. My future brother-in-law has printed a
certificate off the Internet, which somehow makes it legal for him to officiate
the marriage. And when it’s all done, my name will still be Sylvie Kim.
Unilateral name changes rooted
in sexist traditions always made little sense to me. I see no problem with
changing your name simply because you want to, and for marginalized couples facing discrimination, shared names can represent
even greater significance. I just don’t understand why there’s zero expectation
for my fiancé to change or hyphenate his name. Why is his name legitimized over
mine? My surname is already the result of patriarchal conventions. Why replace
it with another, with the added bonus of administrative hassle?
It’s interesting that the clerk found my choice to be so shocking. Keeping one's maiden name isn't
unusual in some Asian cultures. As part of her daily job, I assume the clerk
has likely seen every combination of couple, each with their own naming
traditions or decisions. Knowing that she held our vital legal document at her
fingertips, I refrained from asking her what I really wanted to know: "Why
is it so important you?"
If anything, my decision was
born of cultural pride. Maybe I like having the most recognizable Korean
surname on earth. I’ll like having that distinction as I join a family of Chinese
and Japanese descent. Being a part of the Korean diaspora shapes so much of who
I am. The ancestors who passed this name on to me were a miserable lot, and to
bear the name as a surviving descendent who bucked previous generations of
unhappiness will only mean more and more to me as I grow older.
I’ve been published as
Sylvie Kim. I’ve earned degrees as Sylvie Kim. And I get irate at the thought
of having to update all of my IDs, accounts, and cards just because I have a
A while back, I asked my fiancé,
“Are you upset that I’m not taking your name?”
He made the same incredulous
stank face that I imagine he makes when someone asks him if he’s a Giants fan.
“No. That’s your choice.”
It was a simple, honest
response, but one that represents one more tiny crack in the rigid framework of
expectations surrounding contemporary American weddings.
Well, at least we can change
Photo by Dmitry Valberg (gcardinal) via Flickr Creative Commons.