This post can also be found on my Substack.

Musings on my family history

Family Names

(Don’t worry, I don’t use my mother’s maiden name as a security question - mostly because I didn’t know what it was until relatively recently.)

I’ve lived in Canada my whole life - I was born in Toronto and raised in Mississauga. Growing up, I knew that my surname was Wu, same as my brother and both of my parents. Of course, this was completely ordinary - we were Canadians, and so presumably whatever name my mother had before was replaced by my father’s.

I was filling out an application or a form at some point in my last year of high school, and had to enter information on my parents, including my mother’s maiden name. This had never come up for me before - if it was available in a list of security questions, I wouldn’t use it, because I didn’t know what her maiden name was. So, I was quite surprised when I asked them, and it turned out that they’ve always had the same family name - 吴, or Wu.

As I soon learned, people in China tend not to change surname at marriage. They may go by a spouse’s surname colloquially or with certain titles, but a name change upon marriage requires just as much legal legwork as any other name change. In all my time spent around Chinese friends and family, this was just something I had never noticed. Indeed, outside of the Anglosphere, conventions on name changes at marriage vary greatly. So, my parents, who married in China before immigrating to Canada, share the same family name only by coincidence.

Losing half of my culture

I suppose it’s not exactly that simple: when they met, it’s possible they wouldn’t have really thought about having the same family name. My mother hails from Heilongjiang, the northernmost province of China, speaking a northern dialect of Mandarin. My father grew up in the southern coastal province of Guangdong as a Cantonese speaker: he only learned Mandarin when he went to university. Thus, for much of his life, he would have used the Cantonese pronunciation of 吴, Ng, as his family name.

Of course, you can see that I go by Simon Wu, not Simon Ng. Though they are both fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, my parents chose to raise me speaking Mandarin at home, with very little Cantonese. It wasn’t completely absent - I recently confused some of my Mandarin-speaking friends gathered for hot pot when I called some Chinese broccoli, 芥兰, by its Cantonese name gailan instead of jièlán. Still, the result is that I don’t speak Cantonese at all.

In some ways, this choice has basically cut me off from half of my relatives. Many of my paternal relatives still live in the smaller farming town that my father grew up in, and speak Cantonese exclusively, so all of our communication must be interpreted by my parents. Both of my maternal grandparents have passed away within the last five years, and I don’t know how much time I have left to connect with my paternal grandparents and the rest of the family on my father’s side.