CLOSE TO HOME; Wait, You’re Not Chinese?
I RECENTLY married and took my husband’s name: Chang. I am white and I am Jewish and now I am Chinese — at least on paper. I grew up on 1970’s feminism; I went to law school, became a professional, and always imagined I would keep my birth name to celebrate my selfhood. Yet when I married a Chinese man, I realized that I could support our marriage best by changing my name to his.
Hyphenation was an option, but hyphenated names often create a cumbersome jingle. In my case, Berk-Chang. It sounded like a stomach ailment (”I’ve been in the bathroom all night with the Berk-Changs”). I thought of keeping my birth name but did not want the burden of repeatedly explaining, ”My husband is Chinese, you know.” As my wedding day approached, I decided to take Chang as my last name and, by adding ”Asian” to ”woman” and ”Jew,” represent three groups at once.
People sometimes take offense when they discover that I am not Chinese, as if I were engaged in a form of false advertising. Friends recalled the ”Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry speaks to a woman named Donna Chang after dialing a wrong number, asks her out and is disappointed to find she is a white woman from Long Island. She had shortened her name from Changstein.
When a group of women friends from out of town unexpectedly visited me in Manhattan, I called a popular Chinese restaurant and asked if it could possibly seat eight people that evening. ”You need to call further in advance for a party that large,” the hostess told me. ”I have only 11 p.m.” I asked to be put on the waiting list and gave her my name. Then I heard the rustling of pages. ”Well,” she said, ”I could squeeze you in at 8:30.”
When we arrived, I announced my name. ”Chang party? You’re the Changs?” the hostess said. I imagined her in front of a mirror, rearranging an awkward ensemble. Open the button? No. Belt it? Still wrong. ”That’s us,” I said. I felt guilty as she begrudgingly led us to our table, but what are we Donna Changsteins of the world to do? Should I have interjected on the telephone that afternoon, ”Incidentally, ma’am, I am not Chinese — but my husband is”?
I also unwittingly confused the personnel department at the law firm where I practiced at the time of my wedding. After I notified it that I had changed my name from Pari Berk to Pari Chang, a switch was made in the company directory and on my office door. I quickly learned that this meant the assumption of a completely new professional identity. I received the following e-mail message from a work friend the next day:
1. Who the heck is Pari Chang?
2. Does she count in the firm’s minority statistics for recruitment purposes?
3. Do the Asian attorneys now view her as competition for the partnership?
During recruitment season, people in the personnel department, not having met me, must have assumed I was Asian, and asked me to interview anyone who was of Asian descent. No doubt some of the candidates I interviewed were perplexed. I noticed a few sidelong glances that suggested ”Is she half?” I steered the conversation toward the tired matter of balancing a legal career with a personal life so that I might interject that I was recently married and offer a clue to the mystery of a white girl named Chang.
I do not blame people for assuming that I am Chinese — my name is Chang; it is a fair assumption. Responses sometimes go beyond surprise, however. Acquaintances often boldly announce their approval of Geoffrey as my husband. ”I think it’s wonderful,” they comment. Then they add that he is handsome and ”so tall!” Those of the more boorish variety shout, ”Pari Chang!” when they see me, as though my name were some kind of verbal high-five.
As time passes, I feel emboldened by my new identity. Losing my birth name, ironically, has been for me a matter of self-definition. I am tickled by the irony of having made a modern decision by doing the most traditional of all things wifely: taking my husband’s name.
We were lucky, because both sets of parents approved. They met for the first time before the wedding at an authentic Chinese restaurant chosen by Geoffrey’s dad. My dad thought he would wow them with his affinity for moo shoo chicken, his confidence in the wisdom of fortune cookies. My mom asked me if Geoffrey’s parents were aware that Jews love Chinese food. But I couldn’t help wondering what my father would say if the duck was presented with its neck intact. He is a steak-and-potatoes man, a Hebrew Tony Soprano without the mob, owner of a wholesale meat business in Brooklyn. Geoffrey’s dad, Julius, is a physicist.
At first, my dad spoke slowly and clearly when addressing Julius. Had I not popped a sedative before dinner, I might have snapped, ”Dad, he speaks English.” (Geoffrey’s father moved to the United States in the 1950’s.) My parents relaxed as Julius told stories of his teenage years around the Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill., where he went to high school. They even tasted the whole-fish soup with enthusiasm. We drank wine and discussed pop culture, gossiped about celebrities.
”So, who is Chinese in Hollywood?” my father suddenly blurted. ”What about Mista Miyagi, from ‘Karate Kid’ — is he Chinese?”
Julius, bless him, answered my dad with grace. ”Miyagi? Japanese.”
”Oh! How about Odd Job, from James Bond — is he Chinese?”
”Odd Job? Supposed to be Korean, but it’s a Japanese actor.”
In his unorthodox way, my dear father was trying to cozy up and learn. Julius knew this; he could feel the effort at connection beneath the impropriety. In fact, both of my parents and my extended family have welcomed Geoffrey (and embraced my decision to change my name) — and vice versa.
Still, they try to weave tapestries from stray threads. It so happens that Geoffrey’s first cousins are half Jewish. Their name is Gottlieb. My grandmother, during our Sunday telephone chats, never fails to ask, ”And the Gottliebs, how are they?” The Gottliebs, Grandma, are agnostic. ”Doing well,” I tell her.
The Chinese are not unlike us, my family likes to say. They joke that Chinese and Jewish women both play mah-jongg. And they think of Chinese and Jewish families as close-knit. Don’t they both value good educations and have children who are diligent students, superstars at math?
When Geoffrey laughs, his eyes are smiling moons. When he sleeps, his lashes are like caterpillar legs, straight and stiff. I hope our children will have caterpillar-moon eyes and will know Jewish culture.
We had a Chinese banquet for a rehearsal dinner, and a rabbi officiated at our wedding. We live on a continuum, hovering between East and West. I took Chang as my name to honor this blend, and our choices.