Monday, July 23, 2012

What's in a (Sur)name?


What is your surname? On the surface, it seems like an easy answer since most of us are born into patrilineal or matrilineal societies and we choose the appropriate surname accordingly. Yet, if we were to really think about the function and purpose of surnames, we run into several problems. Aside from tradition and customs, why should we be made to choose?

Let us suppose there's someone named John and his father's surname is Lim while his mother's surname is Ang (This is just an example. Any similarity is purely coincidental). Is he less of an Ang just because he comes from a patrilineal society? More importantly, what defines someone with a particular surname? We often hear about people clinging on to their surnames and boasting of a particular characteristic that comes with the surname. While such a declaration is more about establishing a sense of identity and belonging, there is really nothing that a surname does besides distinguishing our John from the rest of the other Johns that we might know.

Having established that, the main function of surnames is a utilitarian one, why are people so caught up with their family names and establishing this "Us vs Them" mentality? Worse of all, why are married couples so engrossed in differentiating between "my side of the family vs yours"? One may concede that the first case is due to the need to protect one's family and to ensure that all its members are bonded. But how does this explain the second case? It seems that getting so hung up about one's surname actually creates a divide in families as well.

Such a mentality can be attributed to culture to a certain extent. I will only be talking about the Chinese culture here in Singapore since I am most familiar with it. There is a common Chinese saying that a daughter is like water thrown out of the house once she is married. This is due to the fact that Chinese societies are largely patriarchal and the wife adopts the husband's surname. As such, she is no longer considered part of the family as she will be expected to serve her in laws. It is with this well entrenched mindset that we now see some women lashing out and refusing to adopt her husband's surname come what may. This backlash has sent families from one extreme to another as there are wives that do not want to be associated with the husband's family which perpetuates or even exacerbates the divide.

Another cause of such a mentality could possibly be the romantic idea that you are only marrying the other person for that person and the family does not matter. While I am a sentimental sod myself, we have to realise that this is certainly not the case. What we are essentially asking of our partners is to disregard their family. And this would seem rather ironic should we decide to have children as we would hope that our partners are family orientated and would spend quality time with us and the children. In this light, should we enter into a marriage with such a mentality, we would implicitly start our married lives with a divide in the family that would be the root of many problems to come. As much as we hate to admit it, when we marry someone, we marry the family too. 

But if we are to resign ourselves to marrying the family, are we to subject ourselves to a lifetime of misery when we think about the weird distant relatives that our partners may have? Well, what I am advocating here is to take into consideration of how well one can get along with the immediate in laws. In the unfortunate event that one might run into problems, then one has to reflect on whether both parties are willing to work it out. I am in no way encouraging people to turn down proposals just because the parents of the prospective partner are difficult. As for the weird uncles and aunts, I guess we should be gracious enough to bear their presence since by the virtue of them being distant, it would mean that we will only meet them a couple of times a year. 

So what should we make of the issue of surnames? We should call a spade a spade. We should recognise that surnames are just identity markers and since identity is about how people see themselves and how they want others to see them, let them choose which surname they would want to adopt. But we should not be so hung up about whatever implications there may be about surnames which are largely imposed by societies and mindsets that we may have.

"Hello nice to meet you. My name is Isaac, what's yours?.. Oh, I'm Isaac Tan. What's your surname?"

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