The sound you just heard is a thousand Korean aunties gasping in unison.
Not having a Korean name is rare for Korean Americans. The reactions I get from older Koreans go from surprise to horror. The decision was never mine. My Seoul-born mother gave me a first name inspired by her favorite American playwright, Eugene O’Neill. For her, I was born American, and I would sound “American.”
Eugene was the compromise, an American name easily spelled in Korean (and common for females). My father’s side wanted a Korean name, but as most things in my family, Mom called the shots. She figured that because I’m not white, I’d have a tougher time getting a leg up in life, and giving me an American name would help.
Turns out, my mom was right. Thirty-six years later, non-American names are still holding people back. Here’s what’s happened this year:
- Actress Chloe Bennet had to defend her decision to change her last name from Wang. She laid some real talk: “It means I had to pay my rent, and Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable.”
- The British Museum caught backlash this month when a curator said on Twitter that Asian names on exhibit labels “can be confusing.”
- A new Canadian study showed that job applicants with Asian names were 28 percent less likely to get called for an interview compared to applicants with Anglo names, same qualifications and all.
- And in February, Asian students at Columbia University found their name tags had been ripped off the doors of their campus dorm rooms.
And that’s just this year. Let’s not forget when Texas state Rep. Betty Brown said in 2009 that Asian Americans should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” Or how about Duke professor Jerry Hough in 2015 who said almost “every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.”
It’s this xenophobic environment that has caused journalist Tasbeeh Herwees, 25, of Los Angeles, to modify her stance. After years of quietly accepting others’ mispronunciation of her name, in 2014, Herwees penned a powerful piece on her mother’s insistence to never compromise their Arabic roots, including her name.
Today, she thinks about her pilot cousin. His name? Osama. Because his birth name would cause far more problems with his work, he’s had to call himself Sam.
“Our identities are important, but our survival and well-being are a little more important,” Herwees said. “People should be allowed to do whatever makes them feel safe and protected.”
But there’s a difference between a name you can choose for yourself and a name that’s given to you because other people can’t be bothered with pronouncing it, even if the same sounds exist in the English tongue.
Sarah Nayoung Kim, 22, of Chicago, barely had a choice. Kim’s white English teacher in Korea couldn’t be bothered to pronounce Nayoung, so he named her Sarah instead. When her family immigrated to Canada, the name stuck.
“I don’t particularly like the name Sarah, but I think it’s fascinating how I got my name because it shows how white people can act so bold in countries where they aren’t the majority population,” Kim said. “I think this is a legacy of the Korean War, and the ongoing U.S. military presence in Korea. White English teachers come to Korea to teach English, and they are the soft power to the U.S. military.”
Kim’s grandparents and great-grandparents also were not allowed to use their Korean names during Japanese colonization. Kim, who works at a Korean American community center in Chicago, has been trying to incorporate her Korean name into her life more as a way to honor them.
“It does feel like a sort of loss sometimes that by the law, I am ‘Sarah,'” she said. “The only trace of ‘Nayoung’ is on my birth certificate.”
There are two prominent motivations why someone would change their name, said Julie Park, professor director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland. It could be an attempt at assimilation, like for my or Kim’s parents. That was the motivation for Park’s parents, who only named her Julie because her family was about to move to the United States.
Then there’s the practical reasons of accommodation. Is it really worth holding up the line at Starbucks so the barista gets your name right? Is it worth being an easier target for discrimination?
“The ask can come from mainstream society,” Park said. “The different European names, they’re not asked to change their name. We have to be critical when we see certain names are preserved and others are asked to change.”
It’s important to note that in the late 19th and early 20th century, European immigrants also were “othered” and felt the need to change their surnames, including Germans, Jews and Italians. But that has shifted. Comedian Hari Kondabolu famously uploaded the pronunciation of his name (it’s pronounced just like how it would read), noting that the public has embraced the Greek surname of Zach Galifianakis.
My career goal is to make people say my name right. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS.— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) May 12, 2014
Park also sees a danger in mispronunciations sticking. English speakers often mispronounce Tokyo as three syllables when it’s really two, and let’s not get started with karaoke, a word even I consciously mispronounce. It gives privilege to the mispronunciation (the real pronunciation is “kah lah oh keh”).
Context also matters, Park said. A Vietnamese person would likely have less reason to worry about their name if they lived in California, with huge, concentrated Vietnamese communities across the state, than in Arkansas. And then of course, it depends on when you make this decision.
“Especially in the current climate, it’s not fragmented, and it’s not unidirectional,” she said of the need for name changes. “It ebbs and flows with the political climate of the times.”
A 2010 New York Times report cited name-change applications in New York Civil Court as a sign of a decreasing trend in immigration name changes. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not return messages for comment or updated statistics for this piece.
But the burden to change names now falls on people of color to adjust the way they live. Herwees, who is now an associate editor for GOOD Magazine, said she understands when people change their name so they can go about their day without facing questions about their identity or nationality.
“It’s exhausting to have to always calculate how much of the burden you’re willing to take on, or to be constantly trying to take the temperature of the room to figure out how much adjustments I’m going to make to appease people,” she said. “It definitely makes me feel alienated. But that’s just the reality you grow up with. You don’t really have any other options. I don’t know any other way to be.”
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