I have a theory that if I went through a database of American males under the age of 40 and, looking only at their first names, sorted out the Gilberts and Godfreys, the Howards and Hamiltons, they'd all be Asian. Pretty much.
And actually, most of them would be Chinese: the sons of Chinese immigrants. If they're sporting oddly musty "Anglo" names that recall old white men in tweedy suits, I'm willing to bet. So I'm appealing to you today to help me understand this phenomenon of Asian American culture. Most of us who are 1st or 2nd generation arrivals have some form of the Name Drama-Trauma story to tell. (There's even been a book and movie about it recently; thanks, Jhumpa Lahiri!) I've been collecting these stories, informally, in my head, and have identified a couple genres:
1) The Mortimer Adler. Names like the list above, saddling the bearer with a lifetime of dorkish stereotypes to defy -- or fulfill. If you know culturally unsavvy parents who proudly picked a stinker, tell me: where did they find it? They can't have been casually inspired by the beauty of a handle like "Egbert" in the late 20th century; they had to go looking for it, right? I'd like to know the proud story behind these names: the selection process, the hopes for the first-born son...
Or, if you've just got a great example to share, do tell. Here's my favorite: I have a friend who goes by Jeff. Usually, you might assume this is short for Jeffrey, but since he's 2nd generation Chinese American, you'd be wrong. It's short for Jefferson. More on Jeff later.
2) The Jennifers. Interestingly, the equal-and-opposite phenomenon for AsAm girls' names does not seem to be a proliferation of Elsbeths or Ethels. No, we just get Jennifers. Lots of them. Admittedly, the name Jennifer seems to have been a passion that united people across the land in the last few decades, not just the Asians. In the '70s it was the #1 girls' name in the country, peaking at over 17,000 parts per million (or 1.7% of the baby girl population). In the '80s it dropped to the #2 spot, and finally reached saturation point at the turn of the millennium. See for yourself (<-- I love this site).
So in this case, Asian parents seem to have gone with the people's choice of the moment -- but then, why the gender difference in the popular vs. the arcane? I have my suspicions, but I'd like to hear from some of the Jennifers. (Graces, you can chime in, too.)
3) "It's not short for anything." These are the kids who are legally named by other people's nicknames. So when you call the kid Davey, it's not short for David; it's not short for anything, it's his name. And on the birth certificate, it may well be spelled "Davvy" but pronounced "Davey." Not a hugely common scenario, I'll admit, but who knows -- all you Davvys out there, holla at me.
And now, back to Jeff. Whose middle initial is not a middle initial. His parents looked around and thought, "These Americans seem to have letters between their first and last names. How about O?" So his middle name is O.
4) "Thank god we're here; now go to school." These are names given in honor and gratitude for the good fortune of having successfully arrived in the United States, and to inform the baby boy in no uncertain terms what his academic goals will be. Like the young man named Stanford who went to Stanford. When I was at UCB, I did tae kwon do, and on our team we had a Vietnamese guy named California, and a Chinese guy named Berkeley. This became particularly delightful when they sparred during a tournament, and the cheering (from opposite sides of the ring, with lots of giggling) went something like this: "Go Cal!" "Go Berkeley!" "Go Cal!" ...
5) "Oh no, you didn't." This is kind of a grab-bag category. In which I'd place stories like this: Also at Cal, I met a young man born in the year of the dragon, whose parents wanted to name him something auspicious. Looking around, they perceived that Americans tend to tack these "ee" sounds to the ends of boys' names, like "Tommy" or "Bobby." To make their son's auspicious name user-friendly, they dubbed him Dragony.
And then there's my uncle. Who's just named his first-born son Nixon.
6) Finally, there are the names in the original tongue, that just make a person's life too hard. In Vietnamese, "Bich" and "Dung" come to mind. Actually pronounced "bic" and "zung," kinda, but that doesn't help in elementary school. Or in making restaurant reservations, for that matter.
So what's your name, dear reader, how did you get it, and how do you cope? What are your stories, and what are your theories? I know you've got 'em, and you've been dying to tell. Give 'em here.
p.s. Someone with a much better memory than mine pointed out that we've blogged on the topic of names before. Last year. In fact, before Melissa wrote this earlier piece, she and I gabbed about it (contributing to greater, though still fairly slight, overlap), and when it was posted, I even read and commented on the piece. And then I clean forgot. Wait, what was I saying? I don't remember.