The Name Game

January 6, 2006

I don't know if anyone has done a survey on this kind of thing -- it seems like the only evidence that is out there is ancedotal, but when it comes to names and Asian Americans, I think there's a lot more going on that just people adopting "American" names.

From personal experience, I can think of 7 people I know who have changed their names, going by different names during different periods of their life. Of those 5 are Asian American. Three of those people already have both an Asian and an "American" name (one as a first name, and one as a middle). Of those, two decided to go by their Asian names because their "American" names were blah. One switched from using an Asian name to a European one, not because the Asian one was hard to pronounce or anything like that, but because he just wanted to use his first name and felt he had grown into it. And just two are like the people in this story: people with all Asian names who decided to add an "American" name.

I think there's another story in this story, a complicated, larger story about Asian Americans, how they get their names, and the Asian American identity. About deciding to go by your Asian name. About how many of us have all Asian names, and how many have one of each, or maybe even no Asian name. About the placement of your names -- which is first, which is the middle, and which one do you go by? About why so many Chinese American boys have funny British names: Winston, Wilson, Conrad. And what did our parents hope by giving us those names? How do they feel when we change them? And do we change our names more than other people? Do East Asians change their names more than South Asians? Are we conflicted? Realistic? Reclaiming? Finding our way?


Melissa Hung

Founding Editor

Melissa Hung is the founding editor of Hyphen. She was the editor in chief for the magazine's first five years and went on to serve in many other leadership roles on the staff and board for more than a decade. She is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, Longreads, and Catapult, among others. A native Texan, she lives in California. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.



Hi there, I found this post via The Radical Women of Color Carnival.Very interesting, and this is something I've thought about off and on since two overseas (I think Chinese or Thai, but it was a while ago and I didn't know them that well) students arrived at my high school and promptly adopted Western names. I always found it a bit disconcerting because I projected it onto myself and thought of how I'd feel about, in a sense, surrendering such an important part of my identity to the dominant culture. As I understand it, both girls had names that were difficult to pronounce (and chose Amy and Mint for themselves).Just to address Seng's comment:Is it an American thing, the melting pot idea? Is America such a strong cultural identity that it assimilates...relentlesslyI live in New Zealand, so I suspect it's more related to the domination of Western culture in certain countries. Having said that, New Zealand is a total mish-mash of cultures (much like America, perhaps more diverse ethnically, although I may be wrong on that). Perhaps, though, it isn't the same in other Western countries that are less diverse, not that I can think of any off the top of my head.Thanks for the post.
Since I was 12, I've always wanted to choose an American name for myself. My parents wanted me to choose Michelle, but, at the time, I knew a couple of Michelles and felt that it was not unique enough for me; As if my Chinese name was not unique enough. Since then, I've gone through so many names that I never got used to any name at all. At the age of 20, I became a U.S. citizen and randomly picked a name. Shari is actually short for the name I really chose (I prefer not to say because I hate that name now) Go Figure! I changed my name from something foreign to something even more difficult, only to condense it in the end and be just like everyone else. Going back to my story: With my Chinese name still in use, I've always tried to become more "American" by relinquishing my Chinese traditions and language to the point that I can no longer communicate with my grandparents. I look back and realized that all I had to do was choose a name like Amy or even Michelle and I would still be proud of my heritage today. It's a lot easier to assimilate to the culture you live in and have people presume that you are just like them by changing your name. After all those years, I am not upset that I didn't change my name (even though most of my family did), but I am upset that I took the easy way out by not trying to explain to teachers that so and so was my American name and getting rid of my heritage altogether.I knew of someone who did change their names at an early age and I think nothing more of them, than of myself. I have to admit that, at times, I wish I did change my name years ago and am saddened by it, but then I think of the positive things that probably would not have happened in my life, like always trying to be better at everything I do. Would I not feel the same if I felt that I was just like everyone else?I am 27 now and will be marrying a wonderful Taiwanese person with an American name since he was born and he calls me by my Chinese name - till this day. Oddly enough, I still use my Chinese name and it can be confusing, but I just tell people the truth - one is my Chinese name and one is my American name. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, a name is just a name. It's who you are inside that really matters. I've been pretty content throughout my life and I feel that having a Chinese name has led me to be a stronger individual and show my strength when I introduce myself. Although, I was timid when I was younger, I've realized that it was only the insecurites of young adulthood that made me that way. I do believe that the name had to do a little with it, but my mother was a shy person and maybe I was timid because of her. For whatever reasons it may be, I blame fate or destiny. People were meant to go through things in their lives for a reason. I don't believe a name can change who you are. As long as you're a happy individual, you just roll with the punches that come your way.
I teach at an international school in Vancouver where 99% of my students are from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Korea. I'd say about 90% of the students have an English name as well as their Chinese/Korean name.Some of the English names were chosen by parents, but some people choose their own names. Lots of Davids and Johns but also some really interesting ones:Fish (girl)Astro (girl)Osric (boy)Beckham (boy)Zicar (girl)Spirit (boy)Wind (boy)Tiger (boy)Manecy (girl)Rachel & Monica for 2 girls who were best friendsIt's neat to see how original some of these kids are :)Oh, and many of them just use their English names in English--so their same-language friends often call them by their Asian names. It must be really odd to answering to two names at once.I wonder too how much pressure they get to choose English names, and how much they think it's cool to choose a name for themselves.The only time staff pressured a kid to take an English name was when we had a brand new Korean student named Bum Suk. We felt really bad and colonialist suggesting that, but he was only 12--it seemed cruel not to.
About why so many Chinese American boys have funny British names: Winston, Wilson, Conrad. And what did our parents hope by giving us those names?
well, part of it is of course the undue influence the brits have had on chinese through their colonization of china. you'll notice that the boys (and girls) with funky brit names tend to have parents from hong kong. mainland immigrant parents will tend to name their children more popular american names.but there's another reason, and that is the chinese love of the linguistic pun, so ably assisted by the tonal nature of chinese languages. the custom in hong kong is to give each child both a chinese and an english name; the custom was necessitated by each citizen needing a name they could use for official purposes with both the english-language-form-creating colonial government, and the chinese-language-form-creating chinese gov't (not to mention social proprieties in a colony.) so naturally, since all pregnant parents knew they'd be giving their children bi-nomials, they had plenty of time to match the names together.names like wilson, conrad and the prototypical winston, sound like chinese names: think of the "wings" and "gans" and such syllables that start so many names, not to mention the fact the most popular english names are two-syllables.the challenge is to match the names by both sound and meaning. my parents did a bang-up job with my sister's: she is ann in english and auhn lum in chinese; both ann and auhn mean "graceful". mine is a bit more obscure: i'm "claire" in english and "heen lum" in chinese. no homonym, but a pun: "heen" means "clear".
Great post! Again, anecdotal evidence, but I know a LOT of American-born Asians of my generation who have the same name. My first name is Jennifer, and how many times have we met an Asian American Jennifer?I think what my parents did is what a lot of parents did when they immigrated and had a child: they looked at the most popular baby name of the previous year and used that to choose their child's "American" name. The hope, I think, is tied with immigration -- being displaced into a new and profoundly different culture and wanting the best for your child, Asian immigrant parents hope that by concealing ostensibly "different" aspects of their child, their child will experience a minimum of discrimination. For many immigrants, I think one of their greatest goals is assimilation.
got a book for ya: Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake. and i would love to see a quirky little piece about this in Hyphen.
also, check out this very cool site that gives a graph of the popularity of the 1000 most popular american baby names for the last 125 years:
Here's an interesting op-ed piece about Singapore Chinese naming conventions: up in the USA, I thought it was kinda ironic that all my cousins who were raised in Asia had Western names but my nuclear family did not. I've never seriously considered changing my name (largely because the most obvious choice to me, Steven, was already given to a cousin), but I have used Western names at fast food places that call orders over the loudspeaker (though sometimes I've used some of the more complex Biblical names like Habbakuk or Hezekiah).I think it's also interesting that Asian Americans often refer to them with ethnicity as an adjective to nationality instead of the other way around (eg ABC=American Born Chinese, Japanese terms still using generational distance from Japan [Issei, Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei]). Is it an American thing, the melting pot idea? Is America such a strong cultural identity that it assimilates (a la The Borg in Star Trek) relentlessly and those aspiring to be Americans must relegate their ethnic origins to being just another adjective? It is a double-edged sword, the freedom to define one's future taking select ideas from the past. How much do AA's see the USA as the home of their future generations?Relating to Asian immigrants, is it possible there is an underlying spiritual (Buddhist?) idea that names are attachments which reinforce the undesirable separations of new people to their living space?When bargaining in China, I found there are three prices- foreigner, overseas Chinese, and local Chinese- how do other ethnicities and nationalities make such connections to perceived expats in daily life?About name changing, most of the people I know who have gone by a name of their choosing are from punk rock and social activist communities, some for self-determination reasons, others for identity protection or other reasons. Don't have the numbers, but I'd guess about up to 5% of those populations. More importantly, there it is understood and accepted for an individual to do so. It is probably also siginificant that most of these punks and activists are white.
I am Australian, not American. But I feel Australia lacks the proliferation of diasporic Asian writing and I find what I want on the web. I like this magazine.My name is considered by non-Vietnamese people to be unusual and difficult. It is neither. It is actually incredibly common and ludicrously easy to pronounce: won / one (ie. the number).Until I reconciled myself with my Vietnamese identity (about mid teens) I kept wanting to change my name, or the spelling, or something. I sure got sick of people who thought they were being very witty by asking me where two was. I liked the people who then sheepishly said, "you must have heard that so many times." It was only to the really terrible people that I would reply - yes, pretty much every person I meet, so you're not that clever. I once spent half an hour on a phone call with a client (I work in the law and we bill by 6 minute time units) listening to his lame joke about my name. I tittered politely and thought the joke was on him because that was 5 billable units to him. ha ha.My Vietnamese name is incredibly important to my self identification. But I am first generation migrant.Conversely, all my siblings have given their children Anglo/European first names and Vietnamese middle names. One of my nieces is named with a reasonably obscure Celtic name. Both parents are Viet-Australian. The children eschew their Vietnamese names and use their Anglo/European names. I wonder if the naming practice is a result of the parents experiencing the difficulty of having a 'different' name, and seeking to avoid the experience for their children. I wonder whether the children, as they grow and face the disconnection of looking Asian and feeling Australian will revert to using their Asian names as an identifier.
My parents changed my name to billy, because my original name was too long and the characters are no longer supported by everyday language. Please call me bill for short.
I'm thankful I don't have to spell and respell my whole name everywhere I go!!! My best friend is thankful her last name is no longer one that has a negative connotation here-- since it was modified, too. We both feel free of the extra burden! It wasn't required, but I'm glad my grandparents sacrificed for me.
perhaps Asians are just ashamed of their background and want to hide by choosing white names....u rarely see arabs or indians change their names
"white" names????do you mean 'english' or 'american' names?Have Biff and Trixie become popular names for Asian kids?