I didn’t want to change my last name. I dragged my feet as a 21-year-old bride, waging an inner battle between my desire to maintain my identity and the desire to kiss my new husband, which, according to tradition, included his name.
For months after our marriage, I fought the decision, playfully suggesting that my new husband take my last name, Shiozawa. But the idea of a white man taking a Japanese surname when I had three brothers to carry it—as if that would be the only valid reason to consider it—seemed absurd to everyone. Never mind that my white mother and sisters-in-law dutifully took on a Japanese name without a second thought.
But if I didn’t adopt my husband’s last name, I would be considered the worst kind of F-word in a conservative community: feminist. So, I finally, if reluctantly, obeyed. What I didn’t understand then was how this decision would affect the rest of my life.
Two years earlier, at age 19, I had visited Japan for the first time as part of a university study abroad program. For nine weeks, as planned, I immersed myself in my heritage, connecting with host families, practicing language skills and immersing myself in Japanese culture. But as a multiracial person, I discovered that I was considered an outsider, just like my white classmates.
In Japan, introductions begin with the surname first: Shiozawa Arison desu. The look on the Japanese faces as they scanned mine, their wheels turning, was a look that was all too familiar. It’s the same one I’ve seen on countless faces when I’ve met other Americans: squinted eyes, furrowed brows, and an iteration of “What’s are you?” or “Where are you from?” If my answer includes city and state, I’m greeted with a roll of my eyes. “No, but where are you? from?”
In both cases, the confusion is similar. In both situations, the message is the same: you don’t belong here.
Maybe it’s human nature. People like to put things in boxes, neatly arranging them into files and folders. Here, fill in a bubble indicating your race. But how is someone who belongs to more than one race supposed to choose? Luckily for us, Universal Forms has been updated to include a new option: “Other”.
I always knew I was different. Societal definitions of beauty never matched what I saw in the mirror. At 5 years old, I told my father that I would have liked to be blonde. When I was 8, a boy came to my house and said I was “just a stinky Chinese girl”. My white mom reminded me not to forget her half of my heritage, but the kids on the playground didn’t call me names because of her Mormon pioneer past.
When I was 14, I visited Hawaii, where for the first time I felt good about myself. I had never seen so many people who looked like me, who pronounced my name easily, who did not flinch at the idea of eating raw fish. The, hapa— the Hawaiian term for mixed-race people – was not “exotic” or “other”, but normal.
Growing up with the surname Shiozawa in a predominantly white community, I was “the Asian girl” everywhere I went – sports, church, class, work. But I’ll never forget the first day of Algebra 2, when Haley Miyatake sat down next to me and we made eye contact. I felt a surge of relief with someone who, without a single word exchanged, understood my world.
White people like to comment on the shape of my eyes, tugging at the corners of theirs, criticizing mine as “not almond-shaped”, acting as self-proclaimed guardians of my Asian pretension. Others accuse me of mounting an attack on white people if I bring up the subject of race. That I’m oversensitive, choosing to be offended, or creating trouble out of thin air. Or they completely ignore my experience because they “don’t see the color.”
A few years after my marriage, even my husband described me as “raised white”. You know, yellow on the outside, white on the inside, like a banana. But he learned firsthand that America’s so-called ‘melting pot’ is a myth when a man asked him – as I stood beside him – how long I had been in America and if I spoke English. Other.
Who knew impostor syndrome could apply to race? As attacks on Asians increased across America during the pandemic, I was outraged. And at the same time, I wonder if my outrage is valid as an Asian, or if I’m an outsider. Other.
I might forget about feeling like an impostor if it wasn’t confirmed for me. Recently I wore a sweatshirt with the inscription “Asian American Girls Club” at the gym, and an Asian trainer conveyed, in a few words, that he didn’t think I looked up to it. Why would someone who looks like me claim Asian status? Asian, but not enough. Other.
While I had always struggled to define my identity, when I changed my last name, I felt like a tangible part of that identity was gone. It only took a few minutes at the local Social Security office and a few quick signatures – the last I would have signed as Allison Shiozawa – and the name I had spent my life spelling, pronouncing and defend was gone.
It wasn’t a relief, as some have suggested, not having to “worry” about saying and spelling a foreign name all the time. My Asianness was no longer clearly visible on a name badge, on a student list, on a professional license or even on a credit card. It wasn’t on my tongue when I introduced myself.
While I no longer had to hear the countless wacky butcheries of my last name, I also lost the automatic association with a heritage I cherish. I went from “Asian” to “ethnically ambiguous” and even “assumed white”, with the presumption that my lived experience is that of a white person. I went from defending my Japanese heritage to needing to prove it.
If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change my last name. But three kids and a dog later, what I once considered my husband’s name has become our family’s. It’s not just the name I share with my blue-eyed husband, but also our three brown-eyed, brown-haired kids – who use chopsticks, love it”Totoro“, and devours nori. Who each – including the dog – has a Japanese name with our English surname. We are a multiracial family embracing many parts of our heritage, even without a Japanese surname.
Carving out a place for myself as a multiracial Japanese-American woman in this country is an ongoing effort, but one thing becomes clearer each time my identity is questioned: I will always be proud of my Japanese name and rich heritage. that make me what i am.
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