I didn’t want to change my last name. I dragged my feet as a young 21-year-old bride, waging an internal battle between my desire to maintain my identity with the desire to embrace my new husband, which, tradition insisted, included his name.
For months after our wedding, I fought the decision, playfully suggesting that my new husband take my surname, Shiozawa. But the idea of a white man taking a Japanese surname when I had three brothers to carry it on — as though that would be the only valid reason to consider it — seemed absurd to everyone else. Never mind that my white mom and sisters-in-law have dutifully taken on a Japanese name without a second thought.
But if I didn’t adopt my husband’s surname, I’d be branded the worst kind of F-word in a conservative community: feminist. So, I eventually, if begrudgingly, complied. What I didn’t understand then was the way that decision would affect the rest of my life.
Two years earlier, at 19, I had visited Japan for the first time on a university study abroad program. For nine weeks, as expected, I immersed myself in my heritage, connecting with host families, practicing language skills, and absorbing Japanese culture. But as a multiracial person, I found I was considered an outsider just like my white classmates.
In Japan, introductions begin with family name first: Shiozawa Arison desu. The look on Japanese faces as they analyzed mine, their wheels turning, was a look that was all too familiar. It’s the same one I’ve seen on countless faces when meeting other Americans: eyes narrowed, brow furrowed, and some iteration of “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” If my response includes city and state, I’m met with an eye roll. “No, but where are you from?”
In both situations, the confusion is similar. In both situations, the message is the same: You don’t belong here.
Perhaps it’s human nature. People like to put things in boxes, categorizing them neatly 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? Lucky for us, universal forms have 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 age 5, I told my dad I wished I were blonde. At 8, a boy came to my home and told me I was “just a stinkin’ Chinese girl.” My white mother reminded me not to forget her half of my heritage, but the kids on the playground weren’t calling me names because of her Mormon pioneer background.
At 14, I visited Hawaii, where for the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin. Never before had I seen so many people who looked like me, who easily pronounced my name, who didn’t flinch at the idea of eating raw fish. There, hapa — the Hawaiian term for mixed-race people — wasn’t “exotic” or “other,” but normal.
Growing up with the surname Shiozawa in a predominantly white community, I was “the Asian girl” wherever I went — sports, church, class, work. But I’ll never forget the first day of Algebra 2, when Haley Miyatake sat beside me, and we made eye contact. I felt a rush of relief with someone who, without a single word exchanged, understood my world.
White people like to comment on my eye shape, tugging at the corners of their own, critiquing mine as “not almond,” acting as self-appointed gatekeepers to my claim to Asian-ness. Others accuse me of mounting an attack on white people if I broach the subject of race. That I’m being oversensitive, choosing to be offended, or creating issues out of nothing. Or they ignore my experience altogether because they “don’t see color.”
A few years into my marriage, even my husband described me as being “raised white.” You know, yellow on the outside, white on the inside, like a banana. But he learned firsthand that the so-called American “melting pot,” is a myth when a man asked him — as I stood at his side — how long I’d been in America and whether I spoke English. Other.
Who knew imposter syndrome could apply to race? As attacks on Asians have increased across America during the pandemic, I’ve been outraged. And at the same time, I wonder whether my outrage is valid as an Asian, or if I am an outsider. Other.
I might be able to write off feeling like an imposter if it weren’t confirmed for me. Recently, I wore a sweatshirt reading “Asian American Girl Club” to the gym, and an Asian trainer conveyed, in not so many words, that he didn’t think I looked the part. Why would someone who looked like me claim Asian status? Asian, but not Asian enough. Other.
While I’d always struggled to define my identity, when I changed my last name, it felt as if a tangible part of that identity vanished. All it took was a few minutes at the local Social Security office and a few quick signatures — the last I’d sign as Allison Shiozawa — and the name I’d spent my life spelling, pronouncing and defending was gone.
It was not a relief, as some suggested, not having to “worry” about saying and spelling a foreign name all the time. My Asian-ness was no longer plainly visible on a name badge, on a school roster, 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 cringeworthy butcherings of my last name, I also lost the automatic association with a heritage I cherish. I went from being “the Asian” to “ethnically ambiguous” and even “white assumed,” with a 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 saw as just 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 children — who use chopsticks, adore “Totoro,” and devour nori. Who each — including the dog — have a Japanese name along with our English family name. We are a multiracial family embracing the many parts of our heritage, even without a Japanese surname.
Carving out my place as a multiracial Japanese American woman in this country is an ongoing effort, but one thing becomes clearer each time my identity comes into question: I will always be proud of my Japanese name, and the rich heritages that make me who I am.