My American Name

When I was a kid growing up, I wished I were named Smith instead of Wu. I wished I were named Smith, because I believed that if that were the case then I would not face teasing and taunting, the childhood cruelties of the playground. Of course, I had an “American” first name. My parents, immigrants from China, had given me that name, but they used another name at home. They made the distinction between public and private, because they understood how important it was to assimilate. Other Asian American children were assigned a name by a teacher who likely believed herself to be doing the kid a favor. Or they announced to their elders that they were choosing their own nickname in an act of American rebellion.

Somehow, none of these adjustments were enough. Nor was my ability to speak English without an accent, to know the popular baseball players for the hometown Tigers, and to wear the same brand of blue jeans after annoying my parents to spend more money than our family could afford. No matter how “American” my brothers and I tried to become, we were perpetual foreigners or curiosities. Ironically, the more we tried, the more pathetic we seemed. At least I didn’t perm my hair or have eyelid surgery.

That’s what I thought of when I heard Texas legislator Betty Brown’s recent comments to an Asian American advocate who appeared before her. She suggested in an offhand manner that Chinese people change their names to American names.

Then I watched a video clip of the entire exchange. It was worse than that. She also grilled the individual, who was testifying about a proposed voter identification regulation, about how the Chinese conducted elections as if he were a representative of a foreign nation by virtue of how he looked. (He held up well, despite apparently being native-born, meaning native-born to the United States, displaying both knowledge and patience as he explained different methods of transliteration. Imagine the confusion for everyone at the polls if Representative Brown’s idea was adopted, as people with “difficult” names also suddenly acquired multiple names.)

The government official, who after all might represent a few Asian American constituents, makes a clear distinction between the Chinese with the “difficult” names on the one hand and Americans on the other hand. By doing so, she implies that Asians cannot be Americans. What is most astonishing is her denial afterward, seemingly sincere, that the matter has anything to do with race. She is referring to one group in particular; she is not attacking “difficult” names in general. It would be little better if she added a list of other types of names she found troublesome. Presumably she meant that she lacked invidious intent.

Little would be gained by accusing Representative Brown of racism. Her prejudices are not the point. The more important challenge is to explain to open-minded people, especially leaders, what are the effects, intended or not, of their verbal conduct.

A glance at the internet shows that Representative Brown gave license to many more who are not hesitant about their racial impulses. They would like to send a message that is not subtle at all, giving an order from a social superior to a subordinate, signaling that what is most important is not whether a newcomer adapts and adjusts but whether she knows her place. It’s apparent that this issue is about much more than individual attitudes, hurt feelings, or even abstract principles.

Many immigrants, and the ancestors of many Americans who don’t doubt their identity as patriots, in fact changed their names. Only a few generations ago, many members of various ethnic groups identified themselves by a “nationality” and had not become “white” in the modern sense. As a condition of entry, no different than an inspection for disease or parasites, they were transformed whether they were willing. Yet for Asian immigrants, and even their descendents, it turns out to be “difficult” to disguise one’s identity. Perhaps it is “difficult” because of the consequences of comments such as Representative Brown’s – about how “difficult” it is for other Americans to deal with us much less accept us as equals who belong. We are told we all look alike, and in an earlier era every immigrant became “John Chinaman.” When Europeans entered or waited at Ellis Island on the East Coast, Asians were turned away or imprisoned at Angel Island on the West Coast.

The greatest aspect of the dream that attracted so many of us, whatever our ancestry, to this great nation is the belief that anyone, whatever our names, can become an American if they believe in our shared principles of democracy.

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11 Responses

  1. Jens Müller says:

    “When I was a kid growing up, I wished I were named Smith instead of Wu.”

    Isn’t that basically the same? 😉

    And in Taiwan, “everyone” is called Hsieh. And here in Germany, “everyone” is called Müller.

  2. person says:

    You were teased and bullied as a kid and for that reason you think you weren’t treated like other Americans? Your racial politics have blinded you to the painfully obvious: EVERY child in America is teased or ridiculed for something, skin color being one of thousands of excuses for bullies. You think there are no bullies in Japan? You think the ugly or fat kids feel like they “belong” in other more homogeneous societies? If you want to live in a society where people don’t fear the unknown, or segregate themselves from those who are different, you should start building yourself a spaceship.

    “Asians were turned away or imprisoned at Angel Island on the West Coast.”

    I’m not offended by this, but considering what this nation has done to blacks, jews, native-Americans, etc., I suspect some other people might object to the notion that Asian-Americans have really suffered in America.

    “Somehow, none of these adjustments were enough.”

    You’ve set an impossible goal if you think people will just “accept” you always. There are millions of immigrants in America who get funny looks on the street, but who feel American “enough” because they don’t care what others think. In this country, it’s true you have many freedoms. Unfortunately, freedom from ignorant people isn’t one of them. For that, you need to try another planet.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    As a descendant of an American-born person who changed the family name out of fear (justfied at the time, alas) that it sounded too Jewish, may I remind “person” that Japanese-Americans were interred in camps during WWII. OTOH, despite my supposedly streamlined name, which includes a first name shared with a Catholic saint (albeit popular with Jewish parents of baby-boomers), I couldn’t escape such delicate rhetorical questions as “Um, you’re not a Christian Scientist, are you?” during a job interview at The Christian Scientist Monitor after college in the late 1970s. I was then told that I looked like the science reporter, whose name was something like Aaron Cohen. So Frank’s wistful idea that other ethnic groups could blend in more easily needs to be tempered. Lastly, I am sympathetic to Frank’s disappointment that the US doesn’t offer freedom at least from ignorant legislators, but this hope seems even more quixotic than the comparable one concerning the population at large.

  4. Rep. Brown is a laughing-stock and you are right on that her comments imply that those of us with unfamiliar names can’t be fully American. It is a ridiculous assumption, although one that many of us Asian Americans are so familiar with – “Where are you from?” “Uh, Florida…” Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Ralphie says:

    Ignorance is the trademark of US politics.

  6. Fred says:

    I think her idea is brilliant!

    I assume that she wanted us to all change our name to “Brown”, since that is nice and short and she knows how to pronounce it.

    But, I think it would be even more efficient to all change our name to “Wu”, which, since it is even shorter than “Brown”.

    So we also need to all have single syllable first names? Isn’t “Betty” a bit long?

    (tongue firmly in cheek )


  7. Ruchira says:

    Archana pointed me to this article. Here’s more Asian perspective on this matter on our blog.

  8. A.W. says:

    Well, look, in her ignorant way she was getting at a real problem: culture overload. The fact is 50 years ago, there was a specific and frankly narrow american culture. And it is a burden, to some degree on everyone, to have to learn names unlike any they might have ever heard in their lives, figure out how to spell them (especially when they didn’t start in the roman alphabet), and so on. You have to have some sympathy for the problem. I mean my first name, Aaron, is an ordinary “jewish” name you find in the old testament (i am not actually jewish, but whatever). But even then all of my life people have struggled to figure out how to spell it, going “Arron,” “Aron,” or worst of all, “Erin.” Sometimes I tease people for their mistakes, saying, “what kind of Christian are you? Its in the bible! Moses’s brother!” But I have long since stopped being offended, because ultimately what culture you are knowledgable of is really something very much beyond your control. And I think it can get a little pushy, like when a person expects you to know how to pronounce every name in every language in the world, exactly as a native speaker would. Sorry, if your name is Kurt Wagoner, don’t be surprised if we pronounce the W as a W and not like a V. And if you are Conan O’Brien, don’t be shocked if everyone pronounces your first name like “the barbarian.” The real Conan seems to have resigned himself to his mispronounced name while stating that the movie “Conan the Barbarian” ruined his young life because everyone attacked him to be able to say they beat up “Conan.” And if your name is “Jorge” don’t be shocked when you are called “George.”

    So I think you have to recognize the stresses and the limits of cultural knowledge, especially when you are naming an American-born child. Which isn’t the same as saying you have to give children “American” names. i mean for one week, my wife and I faced that dilemma squarely. She is basically an asian mutt, and i am a white mutt, and she was pregnant for one week before sadly she miscarried. And during that time, I considered alot of different names, but my two favorites was Hiromitzu if it was a boy or Rini if it was a girl. i especially liked Rini because it translated to “little bunny.” Heh.

    I did suggest honoring my southern heritage and her japanese heritage by naming the child “Kudzu Walker” but oddly for her that was a non-starter. (Bonus points for anyone who knows why that is funny.)

    But humor aside, the fact that those two names were japanese didn’t deter me one bit because i felt that it wouldn’t be hard for people to digest their names. Hiromitzu might have to be shortened to mitzu or more likley Hiro. But even in long form, if you hear a person pronounce either of those names properly, you have a fairly good chance of guessing how they are spelled. Hell, Rini sounds like something you might name a southern gal just making stuff up. That and my desire to have a name that rolled off the tongue made me like those names better than the other options. Sadly events made that an academic question.

    And, bluntly, when you go to name your child, you are branding them for the rest of their lives. Of course naming your child something that will create mispellings and the like is really in the scheme of things not even the fifth worst thing you can do to your child in naming them. i mean somewhere out there is a child named “Francis Bean Cobain.” What a nightmare. Nick Cage named his kid, Kal-El (and for the non-geeks out there, that is Superman’s kryptonian name). He might as well have named his child “Beatme.” Not to mention people who name their kids after Adolf Hitler and other crazies.

    So consider that an argument for a little sympathy and a recognition that life really is easier if you recognize the limits of cultural knowledge. is that 100% fair? not really. But we have to have some realism and balance. Which I don’t want anyone to read as me saying Mr. Wu was not being realistic, but there it is.

    And don’t consider that a defense of that ignorant dingbat congresswoman, either.

    But, to breach another subject, where it gets really ridiculous is when some fringes start saying that “english only” is a bad thing. We are not doing our hispanic american citizens any favors by allowing them to build up a fantasy where they think they can live their whole lives without learning english even well enough to vote or pass a driving test. Instead it creates a language of success and a language of the semi-permanent underclass. I know of course that some people say “english only” out of racial hate. But in the end, the language of a nation is like which side of the road to drive on. Ultimately it doesn’t matter which side of the road everyone drives on, so long as everyone does the same thing. Where you have problems is when people are driving on the left, right, the middle, on the shoulder. At best you have inefficient chaos. Same thing with language. It really doesn’t matter whether everyone speaks english, spanish, chinese or whatever, but there is a basic and necessary efficiency that is created when we all know that one language. And seeing that the vast majority of Americans know English, it might as well be English. And there is a historical immediacy you get if we keep it in English. For instance, if you know english you can pick up the Declaration of Independance and read it in its own language and understand most of it. It would be a great loss if an american citizen had to have it translated to them, if only because then you have to worry about the failfulness of the translator–or indeed if the translator even understands the document well enough to translate it. And besides there are well over 200 languages in the world. How on earth could any nation accommodate all 200+? And if we can’t, why on earth should we bother to accommodate anything, but english? Why should hispanics get a special place, for intance? because there are so many spanish speakers. but to me that is an argument against accommodating them, because there obviously needs to be more presure to learn english.

    Which again, Wu is not touching on, but I thought it naturally flowed from all of this argument about culture clash.

    And, yes, people, Wu is right to say that you should never assume an asian person is not a full American. But what is unacknowledged here, and in your book “yellow” (at least as far as i remember), is that alot of Asian Americans accept that view. I had to scold my wife until she stopped saying, “American” when she meant white, explaining to her how ghastly wrong it was to think that way. so the heavy lifting of educating people about that has to be done both for non-asians and asians. Its a tragic case of a stereotyped people accepting their own stereotypes, but it needs to stop.

  9. ParatrooperJJ says:

    Actually what she was saying was that we need one transileration system for translating names from non English character sets into English. Otherwise we end up with several completely different spellings of the same word such as chi kung and quigong.

  10. A.W. says:


    well, just speaking of china, part of the problem was the older version of transliteration, which stank up to high heaven. the more modern version is better, but neither one is perfect in the sense of capturing phonetically what is actually being said.