Why I’m keeping my Vietnamese surname when I marry

Vietnamese women traditionally keep their surname when they marry (Credit: Leo Chuoi, licensed under CC).

My partner’s sister recently married. She opted to change her surname and take on her husband’s name, as per tradition…Anglo-Celtic tradition, that is.

It’s largely Anglo-Celtic tradition that acts as the main reference point when it comes to married names in Australia. So when a woman marries and keeps her surname, it’s often interpreted as taking a feminist stance against the traditional practice of taking on the husband’s surname. Yet there are many reasons people keep or change their surnames, and there are many other practices that demonstrate that Anglo-Celtic traditions don’t have to be the norm in a culturally diverse society such as Australia.

I’m getting married in six months. For me, it’s a no brainer to keep my surname. Not only because my husband-to-be’s surname would be ridiculous when combined with my first name – his surname is Bird – but I see my surname as being an important link to my Vietnamese family. Pham indicates my cultural background in a way that my first name doesn’t at all…though having said that, it has been pointed out to me that in Australia, the only people around my age called “Sheila” seem to be Asian. I was given the name partly for reasons outlined in a previous Peril blog post, ‘Taking on an English name‘. Because of the use of Sheila as slang in Australia to mean ‘girl’, most established Australians avoid it as a name for their daughters and only migrants seem unaware of the name’s cultural baggage. The only other people named Sheila in Australia will be much older women originally from the UK, Ireland and elsewhere – migrants from another era. But I digress.

Traditionally, in Vietnamese culture, when women marry they don’t change their surname. For example, my mother is still a Tran, even after thirty years of marriage. In social usage, the norm in Vietnamese culture is my mother to be referred to by her husband’s first name, so my parents are known as Mr and Mrs Tho (Dad’s first name).

It’s funny to think that by NOT changing my surname, I’m actually being traditional within Vietnamese culture. The fact that women in Vietnam don’t change their surname upon marriage is probably indicative of a deeply patriarchal society where children belong to their fathers – and which is why they take on and keep their father’s surname for life.

I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot lately and I’ve asked my diverse group of friends what happens in their cultures. Traditionally speaking, Arabic women keep their surnames, as do Chinese, Greek, Italian etc. Digging deeper, I’ve started to discover all kinds of practices that I didn’t even know about – like husbands and wives in Russia have genderised versions of the same surname (though often the husband’s). It’s clear that the women’s liberation movement has had a strong effect on naming practices though, because a lot of laws around the world were changed to allow for more flexibility – including the option for the husband to take the wife’s surname.

Overall, married names are a very personal choice in Australia. It’s interesting that a lot of women from non-Anglo backgrounds will buck the traditions of their inherited culture and take on their husband’s surname, as per the practice of the dominant Anglo culture. You’ll find that many Vietnamese women change their surname to their husband’s – even if their husband is also Vietnamese, and in taking that step, they’re adopting a new tradition.

What’s the choice then for me then? In writing this, I now realise that I’m pretty lucky because there’s only one choice that makes sense for me: I’m going to keep my surname to honour my family, and I’m going to keep my surname to show solidarity with the Western feminist stance of maintaining an independent identity. Ultimately, it’s what I’m most comfortable doing…there’s no right or wrong, and I completely appreciate that there are different ways of going about this in our pluralist society.

Of course, if I was to be really radical, I will give our children MY surname…but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Sheila Pham

Author: Sheila Pham

Sheila Pham is a writer, editor and storyteller. She is currently undertaking postgraduate studies in bioethics.

18 thoughts on “Why I’m keeping my Vietnamese surname when I marry”

  1. Thanks for this post! My mother changed her name to my dad’s after migrating to Australia: http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-208/feature-juliana-qian/

    In mainland China women have traditionally kept their names legally but are sometimes also addressed by their husband’s name – something like being known both as “Sheila Pham” and “Mrs Bird” – I think it’s actually a more a product of modernisation, Communism and feminism that Chinese women go by their maiden/legal name alone. For example I’ve never heard either of my grandmothers called by her husband’s name; thirty years after retirement my grandma is almost always called Dr Ruan (her maiden name), even when talking to my grandma and grandpa together people say “Li Laoshi and Ruan Yishen (Teacher Li and Dr Ruan). I think being called X Tai Tai (Mrs X) was more common when women were unlikely to have professional jobs because then you would use your relational titles more than your legal name. I have never called a Chinese woman older than me by her name, except in a professional setting; anyone else I would call Aunty or Grandma or something. In Hong Kong and other Chinese cultures women usually change their names after marriage, I think that’s colonial British influence.

    And Sheila Bird would’ve been hilarious – or better yet Lady Bird 😛

  2. For some reason I never minded taking my husband’s name. Gray is easier than Ruthig, and, for me, I wanted to have the same last name as my children. It just seemed easier that way. I guess I just ignore that it’s ME taking HIS name and all the implications that may go with it because I know that he is not a traditional patriarch, but we are very, very much equal in our marriage.

  3. I took my husband’s name when I married in 1970 but this was a bit before woman started keeping their own names.
    I am now very surprised at the number of young woman who take their husband’s surname.
    Interesting blog.

  4. Great post! I really enjoyed it:-) In addition to the ideological implication of the name change business you mentioned in this post, the reason why I chose to keep my last name after marriage was the fact that it’d take a lot of time and cost a lot to change names in my official documents… ;-(

  5. Many of my close friends with Asian heritage who have grown up in Australia have kept their maiden names, interestingly for different reasons as mentioned by other comments here – following cultural tradition, inconvenience with legal documents & other things like getting new cards for everything and as a feminist stance in keeping their own identity. And I think its something that is important for brides to consider before following the social norm of Anglo-Celtic cultures.

    When I was approaching my wedding date a few years ago, my husband who is usually very easy going seemed quite adamant that I will take his family name in one way or another. I.e. take his surname completely or hyphenated.

    In our discussions, I challenged the meaning of having an equal marriage. I don’t just belong to him, we belong to ourselves and each other and that perhaps if I hyphenate my surname, then he should as well. I was satisfied that he would agree to do this if it was really that important to me.

    It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realised how important it was to me. I even made it very clear to our celebrant that we were not to be introduced as Mr & Mrs Husbands Surname and just by our first names. So much so that ‘You may now kiss the bride.’ was replaced with ‘You may now seal your marriage with a kiss.’

    We don’t have any kids yet but not confirmed whether they will have their dads surname or my hyphenated surname.

    I see hyphenating my surname as a way of honouring my family name and keeping my own identity as well as honouring the new family that our marriage has created.

  6. Hey Sheila,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I’ve always wondered why my mum never took on my dad’s name; I always put it down to an accident, since my mum’s middle name and given name got switched around when she first came over to Australia.

    Anyhow, I agree with you on holding onto your surname when you marry, especially since you have an Anglo given name. Not only is your surname a part of your identity, it’s a piece of your ethnic heritage .

    Good luck with the wedding,

    Thuy Linh

  7. Hi Ting, thanks for sharing your experience. I didn’t even bring up the whole hypenated (or silent) surname scenario. I completely see where you’re coming from and I love the idea of creating new names that reflect our contemporary society. After all, plenty of existing surnames are actually compound names. I once met a mixed couple where she was Vietnamese and he was English, and they both hypenated their surnames in different orders. (As it turns out, they divorced, so I imagine they are reverting back to the original names…!)

    I’m writing the vows now and definitely have the same thoughts about being introduced by first names rather than Mr & Mrs. That seems odd to both of us. My partner has no desire at all for me to change my name to his, and “Sheila Bird” is a running joke with us.

    I think when it comes to kids, we’re currently talking about compromising by giving the kids a Vietnamese first name and having his English surname. But it’s totally abstract at the moment, will see how we feel when it actually happens.

  8. Hi Pat, I think the pendulum has swung back so a lot of women do seem to be taking their husband’s surname. But perhaps what’s different now is that it’s much more likely that couples would now discuss and consider before the woman (let’s say) changes surname, rather than it being naturally assumed that it has to be a particular way.

  9. Kimie, it also makes me think that for academic career purposes, you would want to keep your name for citations etc.

  10. Emily, I think you raise the crucial point. It ultimately boils down to the relationship itself – names are just one manifestation of the connection between you. I totally get why women change their surname for their children. My mum loves quoting a line my little brother said like 15 years ago, when he said that she wasn’t part of our family because she’s a Tran!

  11. I’m from a Chinese background and my mum kept her surname when she married my father (in the US). She found though that whenever she travelled and they would check into a hotel as “Dr Lim and Mrs Tan” they would often get the “obviously having an affair” scowls across the check in counter. That was many years ago though and hopefully it’s a lot more common now.
    I also remember my grandmother being distraught when my mother was thinking about taking on my father’s name for convenience.

  12. Hi Thuy Linh, thanks for your comment. My mum also had her names switched around – happened a lot with Viets and Chinese coming to Australia. I’ve talked to my parents about this issue and they reinforce that I should keep my surname, from a Vietnamese traditional standpoint.

    I was given a Vietnamese name as well, but it’s super difficult for the average English speaking person to pronounce well (Ngoc), and sometimes I wish I was given a Vietnamese name that was easier to use in Australia!

  13. Hi Schtef, thanks for sharing this story – a great example of how changing surname can also be about bowing to a different kind of social pressure.

  14. Hi Juliana, finally got a chance to read your piece in Overland properly – there was so much in there I related to wholeheartedly. I’m sure I’ll revisit what you wrote again in future. And thanks for sharing your family practices around naming, all really interesting. And yes, maybe I will go by Lady Bird as a moniker 😉

  15. Hi Sheila I just heard part of the interview about your upcoming feature on radio re your family’s cinema – will look forward to hearing it as my wife is Vietnamese and came from Sa Dec not far from your hometown.
    My wife took my (anglo) family name when we married over 20 years ago. Not sure if she ever considered keeping her maiden name (Tran), though I agree that keeping it helps to maintain her cultural identity.
    Interestingly I met some people from Chile late last year – their system is apparently everyone has four names – first name, second name, father’s surname, mother’s surname – though often abbreviated just to the first name and father’s surname. I find that fascinating as it really identifies each person much more clearly through BOTH their parents not just one.

  16. but as always having 2 surnames in one family also makes some troubles .. it is not the family of “Adams” but family of “Admas & Lee” .. so how to refer to a family as a whole which has 2 surnames. surname even a man can change to the womans surname is also a sign of deeper conenction but I am not saying it is defined by that. just something for some very traditional European family to be important. I have a family with a strong background and I am marrying an Asian girl upon asking her what surname she wants to use after marriage she replied that after reconsideration she will keep her current. I am not agains and I my self told her to decide freely and that I don´t really care but to be honest it left me a bit sad 🙁 Is like saying you are good .. but not so good that I would take your surname. She could keep her own and just have additional surname to somehow make up a family when we go and present us somewhere. You know there are reasons that can support both decisions. But just from my side after she told me that i have some sad dark hole inside me that needs time to heal … I was raised in a tradition with oposite practice and I think it´s 50/50. Both ways have their pros and cons. It really comes down to how 2 people decide. Sometimes some ugly surname can play a role but meeting 2 strong and proud families this can really be a nutcracker 🙂 But love comes first and that is important. Surname in reality is just paperwork and I my self use my nickname 90% of the time 😉

Your thoughts?