Wait, You’re Not Chinese?
May 30, 2002
By PARI CHANG
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
3. Do the Asian attorneys now view her as competition for
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
Julius, bless him, answered my dad with grace. “Miyagi?
“Oh! How about Odd Job, from James Bond – is he Chinese?”
“Odd Job? Supposed to be Korean, but it’s a Japanese
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.