I recently read a blog post from a Chinese-Canadian woman named Jessica discussing her experience with changing her surname.

I didn’t share all my reasons to why I’m changing my name to my friends but to my blog readers, here’s the honest truth to why I chose to change my name:

  • I absolutely hate anything to do with Chinese. As racist as that sounds, I hate my last name because it’s Chinese. Hated it from a very, very, young age.
  • From a young age up til now, I feel embarrassed when I tell people my name.
  • I hate it when people go Jessica “Wuuuu-hooo”. I will scratch your eyes out if you say that to me.
  • I’ve always had a thing for long(ish) names. 5 letters or more is attractive (but not too long)!
  • My ties with my family isn’t that strong.
  • I’m extremely unhappy with my surname for a while. It wasn’t out of the blue – I grew up sort of disliking it.

Taken from The Sushi Box

After writing a paper for an English class on topic of Asian plastic surgery (which I argued was more complex than whitewashing), Jessica’s post was another reminder of the assimilation faced by Asian people living in Western countries.

Any ethnic minority will understand that being different in a predominantly white society is difficult. Ask any Asian kid growing up in the West about the racism and prejudice they have encountered – being called slanty-eyed, being considered intelligent only because of race, having your food criticized, etc. Y’all love our food now, just sayin’.

One vital component of fitting into Western society is having a Western name. Whether you were given a Western name at birth or adopted one later on in life, the question “What is your real name?” is always asked by non-Asian people. To these people, being Asian with a Western name is like owning a counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbag. Yet, not having an Asian name makes you not “Asian enough” or whitewashed.

Here are a handful of Western names that are considered “too Asian”. In other words, Asian people frequently have these names.

  • Kevin
  • Michael
  • Emily
  • Michelle

Asian is apparently an adjective. Anything that is part of your identity could be considered “too Asian”. Usually derogatory, the term points out that you fit into an Asian stereotype. It could mean being too studious, nerdy, or not taking enough social risks. It could even mean being too subsumed in Anime or K-pop culture.

Some people feel that their names add to the insecurity of being “too Asian”. In the past, many non-Asian people have anglicized their ethnic names in order to fit in. During World War II for instance, many Jews anglicized their names in order to avoid experiencing racism and prejudice. Names are also anglicized when they are too difficult to spell and pronounce.

Asian names are usually short and monosyllabic. They are not difficult to spell, but their pronunciation could construe humour for sounding peculiar. Many Asian surnames come from royal dynasties and therefore given to many people. This could be the origin of the the stereotype “all Asian people are related”.

That being said, having an Asian surname could make a person feel generic. There are more Julia Nguyens out there than say, Oprah Winfreys. However, many of the Western names chosen by Asian people are generic. In that regard, the reasoning behind having a Western name has more to do with being relatable than being original.

Even original names can receive negativity – for instance, having a name that is “too black” or “too ghetto”.

Though I wish I had a name no one else had, I love my name regardless. It is a reminder of where my family came from. My parents fled to Europe from Vietnam in the 1980s and lived in various countries for the next decade. As visible minorities with no possessions, they managed to survive and re-build their lives. Before immigrating to Canada, they lived in Rome. I was given the Vietnamese name Phương Linh by my aunt after I was born (a lot of the women in my maternal family have Phương in their names), but I was only called it during Vietnamese Saturday school.

It used to embarrass me when people butchered the spelling and pronunciation of my surname Nguyễn. Learning more about Vietnam and my family’s history has given me a broader perspective of who I am. It has made me proud and grateful to be living the way I do. It does not bother me anymore when people struggle with my surname and inform me of how common it is. Instead of harbouring resentment, I educate them.

Unfortunately, there are people who associate negativity with their name. There is nothing wrong with changing your name. It becomes a sensitive and controversial topic when a person who is an ethnic minority anglicizes their entire name. Given our racially-conscientious society, we should not judge people harshly for choosing to do so. The person anglicizing their name should recognize the repercussions of their actions and address any insecurities regarding identity.

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  • Holly

    I can totally understand why someone would want to change their surname if they didn’t like it. While I use to hate mine when I was growing up, I’ve learnt to love it. If I do get married I doubt I’ll change it.

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    • I can’t imagine anyone being fully satisfied with their name growing up.

      It kind of annoys me how some women look forward to marriage as an opportunity to get a better name. It’s definitely a product of our (still) patriarchal society and the “institution” of marriage.

  • I literally just read that post and I understand the situation. In elementary school, I always got made fun of because I’m Asian (everyone else was non-Asian) and because of my last name… And I kind of grew to not care about people making jokes since I usually join along too. Usually, I’d just say “let anyone do what they want to do”. But everything sounds controversial these days. Things are done so people can fit in and etc. It’s mostly for cosmetic reasons (changing a name only changes the appearance, not your whole character).

    • It’s funny, I went to a pretty diverse school growing up, and other Asians said racist stuff to each other. Yeah, I definitely joined in the jokes sometimes too.

      You’re totally right about it being cosmetic! People to to do what they need to do in order not to get judged at face value.

  • I understand the situation. Believe it or not, I wanted to change my name as my full name is very common. My dad told me you would have to give a legit reason as to why you need a name change. Apparently, not liking my name would not be enough reason. I just hate it as people always mistake it for being Jaime, and it’s not spelled that way! It’s JAMIE. I am a GIRL, not a GUY. Yet, they always spell it that way and pronounce it as a Spanish name. -_-. It makes no sense. It frustrates me so much. I just can’t understand the ignorance of people.

    • I’ve never seen Jamie spelled as Jaime before. Having a unisex name certainly comes with some disadvantages. Did you know people with unisex names get hired more because they are assumed to be men? 🙁

      Having a name you don’t like is similar to disliking a certain physical feature. People who get plastic surgery get judged for being vain and the same goes for people who change their name. At the end of the day, to each his own.

  • Whilst I’ve never had the thought to change my name, I can see why people would want to change it. I did, however, get frustrated with people who couldn’t pronounce my first name. It’s spelt Chynna but pronounced Sheena. Of course, people would always say China when they first see it and then make some joke about the country and asking if I’m from there because I’m half Asian. But whatever, I laugh about it now.

    • I think Chynna is a lovely name 🙂

      It’s good you laugh about it now. We shouldn’t get mad at people who pronounce our names wrong. They aren’t doing it maliciously (in most cases).

  • Jason

    viet thai and chinese, i hate my chinese last name, wished i could used my mum viet last name or grandma thai last name, ma last name is y, not gonna say the rest, it ebarassing get bullied, people say i aint viet, pisses me of no one believe im viet, bullie me for being half chinese

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