I originally posted this essay a while back here on Big Sushi, Little Fishes. I’m re-posting after some time spent revising parts of the middle, mostly for the sake of brevity. Leave a comment – let me know what you think!
‘Should You Take My Name?’
What happens when two family trees graft different cultures?
That which we call a
By any other name would smell as sweet.
– Romeo and Juliet
And so, after a solitary rain-lashed mountaintop exchange of vows and a pilgrims’ inn wedding night, we leave the fairytale setting of a vermilion shrine and a haunted cedar forest. Back to the bento-box sized apartment in suburban Tokyo we’ve shared for several years, and the responsibilities of a newly married couple: writing thank-you notes for oshugi envelopes of money from friends and family; registering our marriage with two governments, the Japanese (yours) and the Canadian (mine).
But as we fill out paperwork, the question returns: Should you take my name?
There are practical considerations, of course. You’d have to get a new passport, health insurance, credit cards. Your bank account would need updating, and you might want to inform the delivery guy who brings packages to our door.
What would your co-workers say? What about your business contacts, here in Japan and abroad? You could get new meishi business cards easily enough, but then there’s the explanations that go with change: how you’re married now, are also Canadian now. And questions and assumptions would follow. How much longer would you still be a valued employee and business contact? Would you leave the company to become a kannai, an “inside-house person?” What are the odds you might even give up your career, relocate to Canada to look after my household, my mother, your mother-in-law – as a traditional Japanese wife would?
And what would your ancestors say? Your family’s roots run like bamboo shoots through the feudal soil of this ancient country which traces its ancestry back to Izanagi and Izanami, two love-sick gods at play at the start of the world. Your great-great grandfather was a samurai, the loyal servant of a tonosama, his feudal lord. Each shubun no hi, ancestral worship day, your parents still visit the family plot, your grandfather’s name carved into a tombstone by the grateful tonosama’s own hand.
I, on the other hand, have all kinds of strange fruit hanging from my family tree: immigrants, frontiersmen, restless adventurers. My great-great-grandfather emigrated from the farmland and troll lairs of southern Sweden to America. He served as a police officer during the Great Chicago Fire, when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern and the city burned. Later, he settled out west. But the hold of the land on my ancestors has been weak. My grandfather worked the trains from Chicago to Omaha, and my father moved us around three States before finally heading north to Canada. Now here I am, my father’s son, finally putting down my own roots — halfway around the world from where I started.
What kind of family tree will grow from this grafting together of our two families?
And what would your parents say? They have been very open-minded about us living out of wedlock these past years. If they were concerned when their daughter, the little girl they raised amid the rice paddies of rural Niigata, brought home a Canadian boyfriend for the oshogatsu New Year’s festival, the most important family holiday in Japan, they never let it show. They always make me feel welcome at year’s end, inviting me to visit shrines and the ancestral shrine. Still, they must have asked themselves, would you carry on these traditions from half a world away? And when your time comes, would you be enshrined with your family or buried in foreign soil?
This is what I say… we broke with tradition the day we exchanged vows on that storm-tossed mountaintop. In a marriage of our own making, what’s in a name but what we choose to make of it?