Why Surnames Matter When You’re An Ethnic Minority

It’s a ‘last’ name, so why does it come first for some of us?

Philippe Awouters, Unsplash

The hallmark of my thirteenth year on earth was Sisqo’s Thong Song. Not for its lowbrow lyricism or its objectification of women — it was much more complex than that: the word thong rhymes with Kwong, which is my surname. Pre-pubescent teens may not know how to calculate Pi, but they sure know a couple of hilarious rhyming words when they hear them. Their teasing was not malicious. They didn’t mock my father or draw cartoon slits for eyes as they placed these two words side by side. They just thought it was funny. And as happens when you’re embarrassed and grateful and excluded — as happens when you’re an ethnic minority — I laughed with them. We all did; my brother and sister, too. Because it wasn’t just kids and it wasn’t just Sisqo. Teachers also gleefully showboated their poetic genius off the back of our surname. Some even posited that our surname was ‘zany’. Maybe not as zany as a trusted adult claiming that a non-white student’s name is weird in front of thirty malleable white kids who yearn to be popular, though.

* * *

Surnames matter when you’re an ethnic minority. Not just because of inane R&B songs from the early noughties, but because they come first, not last. They are another barrier you cannot sneak past, no matter how stealthy or ‘almost’ you are. I’m half-white and in Britain I still can’t slip past the omnipresent guard. It’s not about wanting a different surname, it’s about wanting a less exhausting life. This isn’t particularly defiant or empowered, but sometimes being defiant is tiring. It is tiring trying to live a ‘normal’ life in which you are, as an active member of society, physically seen (slanted eyes, off-white skin) and heard (words that don’t sound like English).

With the face and mouth ruled out, the surname seems like the golden ticket. It’s going to do you a solid, take one for the team. But of course, it can’t. There is no real refuge if you intend to be part of mainstream society. If not on desk plaques or waiting room screens, your surname will still perch uncomfortably atop CVs, academic essays, and emails, ready to be misread and misunderstood.

* * *

Long before adolescent crushes, first boyfriends, and my now-husband, I made a decision: my surname would never change. No trading, no rearranging. One name lined up neatly after the other. This pact was both an acknowledgement that Sarah Kwong would always be who I was and a strong belief that one sweet day, I would be proud of that.

After my parents divorced, my English mother kept my Chinese father’s surname. She said it was who she had been since she was 18, her identity for the last 26 years. She said she had originally taken my father’s surname because it was the norm back then, but she wasn’t necessarily one to worship tradition — being in an inter-racial relationship during the seventies, against her mother’s wishes, and all. This makes me wonder if another reason she took my father’s name was because she wanted to really, officially, legally be part of a world totally different to the one she had known up until then. Perhaps an ethnic minority surname was a small trinket of possibility that both comforted and propelled her out into the universe. What our surname means to me, it does not — cannot — mean to her. It’s wild that the very thing which can cause hurt can also lead to freedom.

* * *

When people get your ethnic minority surname wrong, it feels like a brutal summation of everything you’ve been made to believe about yourself: that you’re a mere caricature of a culture. Japanese-born British singer Rina Sawayama worked with an executive who she later discovered called her ‘Rina Wagamama’ behind her back. Because replacing a Japanese surname with the name of a Japanese restaurant chain is hysterical and clever.

Many people seem to think that it’s pointless to re-read or re-listen to a name they’re not familiar with because they believe they can make an educated guess. This is not about struggling to pronounce, it’s about refusing to care. Here are some of the strangers I’ve been expected to embody thanks to these ‘educated’ guesses: Sarah Kwok, Sarah Kong, Sarah Kwang, Sarah Chong. When a garbled version of my name is called and nobody stands, I know it’s supposed to be me.

For a long time, unless it was vital, I wouldn’t correct people. I would reluctantly shed my skin and seal myself into the rind of this unknown person that I was mistaken to be; all so everyone would feel comfortable, as I writhed around in this itchy, ill-fitting outfit. Once, at a Brownies event, I spent the whole day wearing a nametag that read ‘Sarah Kwang’ because I was too nervous to correct the leader. I had devalued myself and, chuckling with my pals who pointed at the sticker and asked why my name wasn’t my name, I believed that I was solely responsible for this. It’s only now I understand that society, rooted in fear, orchestrated this scenario and has no intention of uprooting or replanting. Hissing short how do you spell it’s says that all of this, this shit that’s hitting my fan, is my fault. And, as a kid, you don’t dare misspeak again because it’s humiliating enough to be a pale shade of yellow and have loud relatives in a country of the white and proper.

* * *

The facts haven’t changed. Surnames still matter when you’re an ethnic minority. But for me, two things did change:

1. I started correcting people when they tried assigning me any random Chinese (or made-up) surname.

2. Roughly a decade after thong (and the university iteration: dong), my one sweet day finally arrived.

British-Chinese writer exploring culture, identity, wellness, language, and travel. Based in Hong Kong. www.sarahkwong.net