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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