Why I took my French husband’s last name

March being Women’s History Month and Women’s Day having just passed, I thought I’d respond to a question I’ve been asked a few times since my marriage.

If I didn’t live in New York City, epicenter of heathens, my decision to take my husband’s last name may well have gone unnoticed. As it is, my location and my female peer group – many of whom married and kept their last names – both rendered my choice more visible and my motivation less obvious.

The truth is, for a feminist who condemned the obstacles facing French men who want to take their wives’ last names, I didn’t hesitate for a second to go down the path of “tradition.” That isn’t to say I didn’t understand arguments against the practice; rather, my personal reasons for changing my name just seemed more compelling.

Normally, I'm all for disrupting gender roles though.

Normally, I’m all for disrupting gender roles though.

~

Reason #1: Not my circus, not my monkeys

Funnily enough, my so-called traditional choice had nothing to do with either my or Z’s cultural traditions. Chinese women don’t take their husband’s last names upon marriage, and – legally – French women always keep their maiden names (though they may use their husband’s last name socially, if they want to).

This is an important point, because it means I actually broke tradition with my choice. So while some feminists argue a name change signifies the surrender of personal identity — I felt the decision only magnified my individual agency.

~

Reason #2: The center *can* hold

However, my heritage did play a role in the decision-making process. I considered that, unlike many Chinese-Americans, I have a Chinese middle name aside from an English first name. This stroke of luck freed me to make my choice without completely erasing my heritage. Had that not been the case, the calculus would have been different.

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Reason #3: A psychic vision from childhood

This is probably the creepiest and least comprehensible reason for my name change. As a fifth grader, I was given a school project to design a heraldic coat of arms reflecting my interests and ethnicity.

Unsurprisingly, I drew books and horses to represent my hobbies (yeah, I’m basically Tina Belcher).

Very surprisingly, I drew a Chinese flag and a French flag to represent my ethnicity.

The project was completed before I ever stepped foot inside a French class or even formally learned about the country. So imagine my shock when I unearthed it after Z and I had already been together a number of years….

*Cue X-Files music*

~

Reason #4: Say my name, say my name

In the Bible, there’s this riveting story about how one tribe tested if others were from the same tribe by forcing them to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.”As a result, “shibboleth” came to mean any word used to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

When I was a kid, I wanted a totally easy, “American” name. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see my (now English-Chinese-French) name as a sort of shibboleth — one that only those closest to me would know how to pronounce.

(Sorry for the self-indulgence. I’m not even a special snowflake, just an average one).

~

Reason #5: Kick ass, take names

What can be more feminist than kicking ass and taking names? Literally taking names?!

I just take and take and take -- YAAAARGH!

I just take and take and take — YAAAARGH!

~

So maybe my decision-making process was a little more overwrought than I first suggested. Ultimately, though, people choose to take a spouse’s last name (or to hyphenate, or to create a new family name) for completely personal, inscrutable reasons. While I would encourage anyone approaching the altar to give it some thought, in my book, there is no single, “feminist” answer.

 

The Real Reason French Women Don’t Get Fat: Social Pressure and Beauty Norms

The Myth

Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I’d like to add a fourth to that list — claims about French women.

Anyone who types the phrase “French Women” into Amazon search will instantly be presented with a list of reasons our sisters across the Atlantic are superior. According to the cheerfully colored paperbacks which constitute the search results, French women don’t get fat, feel beautiful everyday, never sleep alone, and generally glide about in clouds of effortless grace.

Out of these, the biggest lie of all is probably the one that kickstarted this whole French-women-are-superior phenomenon. In 2004, Mireille Guiliano (mouthpiece for luxury empires LVMH and Veuve Clicquot) published a book purporting to reveal the key to Gallic girls’ svelte figures. It was titled French Women Don’t Get Fat:The Secret of Eating for Pleasure.

Upon its publication, a collective gasp rose from the throats of everyone in the US with two X chromosomes. Ladies this side of the Atlantic were clamoring to discover how French women mainlined eclairs and cheese plates while still keeping trim. Guiliano’s book shot to number 1 on the bestseller list, and an insidious misconception was born: according to Guiliano, French women felt no guilt over their consumption of rich foods — they simply integrated them into a lifestyle of discriminating taste and deliberate appreciation of indulgences. 

Eva Green smoking

Popular media would have you believe that all French women are more or less cast in the mold of actress Eva Green.

While certain elements of French culture feed this idealization (no pun intended), the truth – as always – is much more complicated. Here, I’ll take a look at the reasons people believe French women don’t get fat, then posit what I think are real, sociological reins on waistlines.

~

The Kernel of Truth

Statistics, though occasionally misleading, can nonetheless shed light on the origin of this myth. While rates of obesity have climbed in France, they still hover at around 11%, the lowest in the EU and far below the US’s 35%*. France is also the only country in the EU where the average BMI of both sexes remains firmly in the “normal” range, and the only country moreover where significant numbers of women are medically underweight (5%).

According to Guiliano, this is largely due to a more ritualized culture of eating in France. From food shopping (going to the markets multiple times per week to purchase what’s fresh and in season), to food preparation (cooking!), to actually sitting down and eating at meal times instead of snacking mindlessly — the overall culture encourages the savoring of foods, which then naturally moderates their consumption. In Giuliano’s equation, slimness is the result of controlled gastronomical enjoyment, not anxiety or fad diets.

Since I’ve previously written about my own run-ins with French eating rituals, I see where Giuliano is coming from. I even believed it myself during my first few months in France when I saw many a woman sit down to a rich meal with no mention whatsoever of dietary restrictions, weight-watching, or calorie-counting (even today, I don’t know how to pronounce the French word calorie). This was in startling contrast to the meals I’d shared with Americans, who would inevitably launch into either self-reproach or commiseration with fellow neurotics about the nutritional content of what they were about to dig into.

Carrots and ketchup

Not gonna lie — I too had a hard time overcoming dietary neuroticism. After downing a box of cookies, I’d resort to carrots and ketchup for dinner.

Still, over time, I began to notice cracks in this veneer of effortless moderation. While traditional food rituals and gourmand attitudes may be contributing factors to France’s ability to stay thin, ultimately I believe these offer only a truncated explanation.

~

The Actual Truth

In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” French actress Julie Delpy (a director in her own right and one of my personal feminist idols) offers a frank and telling glimpse into what French women think of their bodies. Delpy’s character, a curvaceous blonde in her forties, refers to herself at one point as “a fat-assed middle-aged mom losing her hair.” Off screen, Delpy has admitted having similar insecurities, both denigrating herself and feeling denigrated by others due to her weight.

Julie Delpy Ethan Hawke

I have a huge girl crush on Julie Delpy, gah. ❤

Though Delpy looks like a goddess to me, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After spending more time in France, I began to suspect that women poked at minuscule portions not because they wished to savor every bite, but because they had a hushed horror of putting on weight.

Why hushed? I believe that – similar to how the French disdain formal exercise – they perceive it as really uncool when anyone reveals an arduous effort to stay thin. Not only are French women just as neurotic as American women about their weight, they carry the added obligation to appear as if they don’t care.

That apprehension may be muted at the dinner table, but it’s literally spelled out at the pharmacy. Whereas American pharmacies might have a “Diet and Nutrition” aisle, the equivalent in French pharmacies is just a section labeled “Skinniness” (minceur). The first time I noticed this, I was shocked. For all the efforts people made to appear as if they weren’t deliberately dieting, this observation glaringly highlighted their real priority. It wasn’t gourmet quality they cared about. It wasn’t even health. What mattered most was conforming to norms of attractiveness, which in France means really keeping down one’s weight.

Once this suspicion struck me, it wasn’t hard to find evidence in its favor. A report headlined “French women, thinnest in Europe, think they’re fat” indicated that the ideal weight in France is indeed lower than in other countries. Sadly, what isn’t any lower are rates of eating disorders. Despite a culture that shuns calorie-counting in public, about 1 to 3 percent of young French women are anorexic, while 5 percent are bulimic*.

Another sobering result of this pressure to remain waifish is the reluctance of French women to give up smoking (and its convenient powers as an appetite-suppressant). While between 1950 and 2010, the percentage of the French male population who smoked was cut in half, the percentage of female smokers increased from 20 percent to 26.5 percent. The gloomy motto one article extracted from this trend was “plutôt mourir qu’être grosse” … “better dead than fat.”

Ben and Jerrys Flavor Grave

Which is so not my personal motto. I can’t even handle the death of a Ben and Jerry’s flavor.

In summary, French women are not magical. Yes — the stats show they have greater success at staying slim, but that success comes at a cost. Far more formidable than the expense of leeks from the farmer’s market is the psychic cost of pervasive social pressure and inflexible beauty norms. I, for one, am not all too sure that the trade-off is worth it.

~

With each passing year, I like to think that I become a little more assured of my identity, a little more comfortable in my body, and a little more impervious to the insipid brand of beauty peddled by global mass media. Unfortunately, I’m not totally there yet, and neither are most women I know. As we move into the holiday season and the ensuing period of self-flagellation and magazine endorsed cleanses, my hope is that – over time, around the world – women give less weight to the Earth’s gravitational pull on their bodies and more weight to the loveliness within themselves.

What it’s like to be Asian in France

It’s time to address a sensitive topic I’ve been mulling over since first setting foot in France. Issues of racial integration tend to raise hackles here in the Hexagon, so I’ll  admit it: the title of this post is misleading. I don’t speak for all Asians in all of France. No. This is only my piece of the puzzle. That piece is colored by my skin – sure – but it also owes its shape to myriad other factors. Living in the capital. Being a young woman in my twenties. My Chinese American heritage. Speaking with an accent in French. Smiling a lot and wearing big, shiny earrings, etc.

While far from universal, my perspective is nonetheless based on actual encounters that may or may not only occur to someone without my specific set of characteristics. This is what it’s like to be Asian in France, for me.

~

First things first, I love France. While Paris is my HQ, I’ve traveled to other parts of the country and found it consistently awesome. Probably 93.5% of the interactions I have with people are neutral or positive (precision, j’adore), but it’s that remaining 6.5% that I’m going to talk about now.

Napolean and Asian baby me

I was a born Francophile. Also, my dad had the brilliant idea to dress me up as Napolean when I was a baby.

~

The first hint for me that being Asian in France might be different from what I was used to came during a dinner at the Paris home of a Chinese French couple (friends of my parents) and their high school age boys. At the time, I had only spent a few days in France and was still shy about using the language. Still, I managed to engage the high schoolers in a discussion about French versus American cultures.

The boys were friendly, extroverted and spoke animatedly. They both attended a prestigious school, made references to plentiful friends, and engaged in extra-curricular  activities. To me, they sounded perfectly integrated into French society. After all, why wouldn’t they be? They were born in France, and in my mind, they were French.

However, as the night progressed, something seemed off about our conversation. I struggled to put my finger on it, when it suddenly hit me. Each time I spoke about the US, I used “we” to refer to Americans. But when the boys spoke about France, they used “they” to refer to the French.

I wondered if I was reading too much into things, but I couldn’t shake the impression that the boys didn’t think of themselves as French. If that were the case, which societal factors led them to feel that way? Now, after over a year of cumulative living experience in France, I think I can offer some possible answers.

~

“Japan?”

I stayed silent.

“Korea?”

I remained stony-faced.

“Vietnam?”

I stared resolutely across the tracks to the opposite side of the subway station, determined to ignore this stranger who had wandered over and – after issuing a cursory, unanswered “Hello!”  – begun interrogating me about my racial origins.

“Do you speak English?”

Do I ever, I thought to myself as I mentally listed all the curse words I wanted to unleash on him. Unfortunately, their meanings would have been lost on him, a non-native speaker, and I feared that engaging him in any fashion would only provoke further interaction. After what seemed an eternity but was only a couple of minutes, my train arrived. I managed to get into a different car from my harasser and take some deep breaths. At last, my racing heart slowed to a normal rhythm and my fury at being objectified, exoticized, targeted, and accosted while simply going about my business began to dissipate.

My head on a terracotta warrior

Thanks for playing Guess-My-Asian-Country-of-Origin. Your implication that Asians all look alike / are interchangeable has allowed you to unlock a new level: Find-the-Asian-Girl-among-the-Asian-Statues.

I wish this had been an isolated incident. It wasn’t. Similar incidents happen on a monthly basis. Sadly, when I say similar, I mean identical except for the slightest of variations such as the perpetrator substituting “konnichiwa” for “hello.”

~

It’s easy to shrug off strangers who hassle a young woman as simply creeps. Unfortunately, there are more insidious ways to single someone out for their race — ways which may even be construed as friendliness or fraternal lightheartedness.

I’m thinking, in this case, of a professional acquaintance who is an older male. When he found out that I had Chinese heritage, he was extremely enthusiastic. “My GIRLFRIEND is Chinese!” he exclaimed as if we had uncovered an intimate connection, instead of one that is completely statistically unremarkable given that one fifth of the world’s population is Chinese (also, pro tip: Chinese American is worlds away from Chinese, culturally). However, recognizing that this person was only trying to be friendly, I refrained from shooting back a wide-eyed “No way! Get this, my BOYFRIEND is French!” Instead, I smiled and nodded as if he had just conveyed a curious novelty.

When he further asked if I knew Mandarin, I responded that I could converse at a basic level though I couldn’t read or write. After this regrettable admission, I had to grit my teeth and endure some “[Presumable Chinese], can you understand what I said?!” each time I saw him. Though my answer was always “no,” his attempts to communicate with me in Chinese escalated to writing me occasional work-related e-mails with lines in Chinese, despite the fact that I couldn’t read a word of the language.

Maybe this is an example of someone who’s only a bit clueless but ultimately harmless. In an effort to get along, that’s precisely what I told myself. Surely, I thought, others I encountered in the professional realm would be a tad more sensitive. This latter belief was blown to pieces when I went to a dinner hosted by this very acquaintance and attended by a few others in our field.

It turned out that our host’s Chinese girlfriend was not present but had prepared some dishes for our party. As we chowed down, I was taken aback as the diners – both men and women – joked about this missing girlfriend giving him “massages” in addition to cooking, and “massages” being part of the educational curriculum in China. Though I felt uncomfortable, I am ashamed to say that I did not speak up and, after a few cups of bubbly, even laughed along for a bit. At the end of the night, one man flippantly said to our host, “Thank Lucy Liu for her cooking.”

~

In France, the standard size of a coffee is what Americans tend to think of as an espresso. If you want more of the black stuff, you have to specifically request a “long,” “lengthened,” or “Americano style” coffee. Even then, a French cafe will only  serve you the amount of about half a cup from an American deli. This is something I had trouble getting used to, after having run around New York for a year with a cup of Joe constantly glued to my hand.

On the now rare occasions when the desire for a heartier beverage strikes me, I turn to the much maligned Starbucks. This is a choice I’ve had to defend multiple times. I say this so that you can imagine my disappointment when last September, news broke of an instance of racism at a Starbucks in Paris. A barista had drawn a face with slit eyes on the drink of a Korean-American.

The article induced some head-shaking and sighing on my part but did not stop me from patronizing their establishments. After all, this was perpetrated by an individual barista, and – as indicated within the report – this kind of stuff happens in the US too. However, it’d never happened to me in the US, and, even after the report, I didn’t think something similar would happen to me in Paris either.

Sing with me now the refrain of this blog: Ah, how naive I was.

No, my drink at the Starbucks Saint-Lazare wasn’t labeled with an offensive caricature. What happened instead was that I ordered my typical “Americano” and when it was ready, the barista shouted, “Chino!! Oops, I mean Americano.” Then he turned and cackled with the barista next to him.

I briefly considered the damage that a steaming hot beverage could do, but I restrained myself. Nonetheless, the drink left a bitter taste in my mouth — one that had nothing to do with the coffee itself.

election 2012 american embassy in paris

You’ll just have to believe me when I say I’m American.

~

When I set out to write this entry, I first opened a Word document and simply listed all the times I could remember being singled out for my race in the past six months (I’m still wary about using the word “racist” to describe these encounters; I’m optimistic – perhaps naively so – that people are basically decent, just ignorant). I came up with a total of 12 anecdotes I could use.

Twelve. In six months. That I can remember. From those, I had to select just a few to sketch my experience.

On average, I have an uncomfortable racial encounter on a bi-weekly basis.

I don’t really know what to make of this figure. Perhaps others have more encounters of this sort than I do. Perhaps others experience something similar on a daily basis. I may be supremely privileged, and this may all sound overblown. I may also just be unlucky; perhaps other Asians saunter about France completely unassailed.

What I do know is that in nine months of living and working in Manhattan, I can only recall two instances of something like this happening. Sure, I probably would’ve told another tale if I’d lived in Jasper, Alabama — but I can only analyze my experience within the context that I know. (It also seems more reasonable to compare New York and Paris, as each is an international metropolis with a significant Asian population.)

I just want to conclude with a couple of caveats.

1) It’s possible that I’m noticing and remembering these incidents more often in Paris and around France because I’m a foreigner to this country. I may just be more wary than I am in the States because I have a foreigner’s sense of always being an outsider. However, I can frankly say that some of the racial encounters I’ve had in France have simply never occurred to me in the US.

2) I don’t want anyone to think that the offenders are always old white guys of Gallic descent. Nope. Offenders come in all colors of the rainbow, can be any age, and of either sex. Besides the fact that strangers who approach me in public spaces to inquire about my race are always male, there is really no pattern.

In the end, I’m proud of my heritage and am happy to talk about it with people who know me or who are in the process of getting to know me. All I ask is that those who are curious not make assumptions and actually listen when I relate my individual background. That’s not too exacting a request, I hope.

mannequin chinatown new york city

I make a valiant effort to explain what being Chinese American means to me. But there are some things I can’t explain — like this storefront in Chinatown, New York.

(For anyone wishing to read more on the topic, I recommend this insightful article about how Asians are treated in France from a Frenchman’s point of view.)

Titles, names, nouns: a feminist issue

I was at the coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge when a professor bumped into me en route to destination caffeination. “Excuse me, mademoiselle,” he muttered mechanically — then paused. “Sorry, I meant to say madame” he chuckled, looking around at our other colleagues. “Mademoiselle has been removed from the French language. Did you know that?”

“Sure,” I grinned back. It was a brief exchange, but his joke had attempted to unite those of us in the room in the esprit gaulois, that ribald spirit the French inherited from their Gallic ancestors which scoffs at political correctness.

In this case, the offending instance of political correctness was the French government’s 2011 ban on the use of “Mademoiselle” in all official paperwork. The order was issued after complaints that it was sexist and outdated to make women identify themselves by their marital status, while not requiring the same of men. (When filling out forms, for example, women had to choose between the civil titles “Madam” and ”Mademoiselle” while men simply had to declare themselves a “Monsieur.”)

If you’re thinking that such a ban is stupid and/or pointless, you’d have plenty of French men and women for company. The common response here was derisive annoyance or defensive anger. The government is destroying the Gallic spirit! … There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted Latin culture that celebrates differences between the sexes … Surely these kinds of policies only suit repressed Anglo-Saxon cultures, with their vulgar notions of gender equality and cantankerous feminists.

Nursing my cup of morning brew, I analyzed my reaction to the professor’s remarks. To be honest, even after all this time abroad, I still feel a bit glamorous being called “Mademoiselle.” Admittedly, I was also flattered to be assumed assimilated enough to not be one of those feminists.

However, the fact of the matter is: I am one.

Facing Notre Dame Cathedral

My opinions aren’t chic, but I’m not turning my back on them.

At least I’m a stickler for language.

Of course “Mademoiselle” hasn’t been purged from the common lexicon, and I don’t  think it should be (this blog’s very name is evidence). Rest assured, it’s still a popular way to address young women. Nonetheless, I think the government made the right move in treating men and women as par in terms of paperwork.

Words are important. Identifiers – titles, as well as names and nouns – are crucial.

And what may seem like a trivial, isolated issue is actually endemic to much of French language and culture.

~

His wife's last name

An optical illusion: you can see it as a stub from the morning paper AND as an instance of sexism!

Sometimes I forget to bring a book on my commute and grab the day’s edition of Direct Matin, the free and somewhat trashy paper distributed around metro stations. Usually I scan the minimal news content before tittering over celebrity gossip and reports of odd happenings.

But instead of being amused by this odd tidbit, I found it deeply problematic. To summarize (italics are mine, and comments in parentheses are my reading between the lines):

A 37 year old man in the Rhône region of France is the first married man to take the last name of his wife. This has only been legal since the end of 2011. He ran into a lot of difficulty during the process, since many city halls refused him, pointing to problems with existing I.T. systems. Though he finally succeeded, his quest didn’t have anything to do with feminism (whew! no worries guys). He only wanted to change his last name because his Armenian family had adopted a Turkish last name to escape persecution (so, any other fellows wanting to try this newfangled take-your-lady’s-last-name-thing better have a solid excuse!)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that a man can take his wife’s last name. It’s not so great that this act is only legal as of last year; one has to jump through ridiculous hoops to achieve it; and it’s being reported on as some amusing novelty demanding a particular justification (besides feminism, of course, which is apparently not appropriate motivation).

Bride on the Seine River

A devoted husband takes up his wife’s dress… but definitely not her name.

~

Given the sexism around the issue of names, it may not come as a surprise that there’s also sexism around the issue of nouns. After all, the word noms in French refers to both “names” and “nouns.”  They’re essentially the same thing: identifying words.

Unlike in English, nouns in French are gendered. This means… well, not much typically. Chairs are female while toasters are male. Mustaches are female. Nail polish is male. For the most part, genders for nouns are totally random and serve zero purpose besides frustrating foreigners trying to master the language.

Eclair and macaron

These pretty pink pastries – an eclair and a macaron – are male. My digestive system didn’t mind though.

Where the issue gets dicey is when a noun refers to a profession; then, the genders are correlated with the sex of the people who commonly perform the job.

The word for nurse (infirmière) is female.

The word for ambassador (ambassadeur) is male. A news editor (rédacteur) is also male. So are professor (professeur) and engineer (ingénieur).

As both men and women have been entering into professions not traditionally performed by their sex, there has been some adaptation of the language. For nouns describing female-dominated professions, masculine forms were quickly introduced. It’s now completely common to refer to a male nurse as an infirmier.

But – ladies, wait for the catch! – there’s resistance to creating feminine equivalents of male-dominated jobs. This is partly a problem of historical language; for example, an ambassadrice already refers to the wife of an ambassador instead of a female ambassador. The bigger issue though is that even women suspect adopting feminized job titles would decrease their job status. That’s what happened with the word rédactrice, which came to mean the editor of a women’s magazine instead of a general news editor who happens to be female.*

Language, it seems, is not a woman, despite langue being feminine in French.

~

I don’t necessarily have final words to offer, or solutions to propose.

I’m not looking for anyone to say “Pardon my French.”

I just believe it’s worthwhile to dissect and dismantle potentially harmful sociolinguistic frameworks.

These aren’t the kinds of things you learn in a French classroom, but I think they’re discussions worth having. Don’t you?

~

*Beeching, Kate. “Women and Language.” Women in Contemporary France. Ed. Abigail Gregory and Ursula Tidd. Oxford : Berg, 2000.