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What’s In A Name?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 9, 2009 12 Comments

A Republican Texan legislator, Betty Brown, created an uproar Tuesday by suggesting, during House Elections Committee testimony, that Asian-American voters should use names which are “easier for Americans to deal with.” Ramey Ko, a rep for the Organization of Chinese Americans, had earlier stated “that people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent often have problems voting and other forms of identification because they may have a legal transliterated name and then a common English name that is used on their driver’s license on school registrations.” Brown’s response?

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”

While the Texas Democratic Party called for an apology, Brown’s spokesperson expressed outrage at the racialization of the statement, saying: “They [the Democrats] want this to just be about race.”

While most of the discussions I found online center around the racial aspect of the remarks, I found the assumptions about language particularly interesting. “Here” is America, an English-speaking space, in contrast with (other) spaces where (other) languages are spoken. Also, “you and your citizens?” One point: here is not so plainly English speaking. Further, Chinese is portrayed as “a rather difficult language,” whereas English-aligned names are “easier,” dealt with “more readily.”

It is not that people don’t use Anglicized names upon immigrating to America-whether officially or not. I have had Indian friends with Hindu names who suddenly became “Alan,” “John,” and “Harry,” tired of the inevitable pronunciation issues they faced with, or what one called the “introductory nightmare.” For some, it is easier to use such names because there are too many things “otherizing” one already, and a modified name becomes a way of indexing membership, in-groupedness.

For others, there is violence. I remember one of my students once telling us of how when he first arrived from China, his High School teacher decided that his name was unpronounceable-without even attempting it, or asking how to pronounce it-and “christened” him with an “American” name. He felt miserable about it, but that’s what he was called, and he had to resign himself to that. It was not until he arrived in Berkeley that he “reclaimed” his name, and insisted that everyone call him by his Chinese name, that he felt, in his words, “empowered” again.

Brown’s remarks are highly inflammatory, and it is a wonder she didn’t recognize that early. There’s plenty in a name…which is something she would recognize were she ever at the receiving end of her own rhetoric.

How hard, really, is “Ko” to pronounce? Though that’s so not the question.

Update 1: Watch the exchange between Ko and Betty Brown:

Update 2: I just watched the video, and she immediately says, after making that first statement about Asian Americans using easier names, that she didn’t mean people should change the names, but use a transliteration. She goes on to say that Ko and his “people” should adopt names that are more accessible. While the video offers some context for her remarks, I am still deeply uncomfortable with her thinking. She does, at the end, though, ask that the “bright” young man, Ko, come up with a solution that everyone can live with. I am beginning to rethink this a little…

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12 Responses to “What’s In A Name?”

  1. aaminahm on: 9 April 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Ironically the letters K O stand for an acronym for Knock Out in English. It is a boxing term. I wish that we could K.O. all of this language bigotry! It seems to me that the one who is at a loss is Betty Brown. She doesn’t realize how idiotic it is to assume that American citizens who are interested in voting should change their names to vote within America. Who is it easier for? Is it easier to erase someone than it is to acknowledge them? K it O betty!

  2. Youki on: 9 April 2009 at 6:07 pm

    yeah I’ve always gone by Youki, when I tell people my middle name – Richard – no one ever believes me. My name is easy, though – /yu ki/ or I usually say, “you as in you and me, and key as in house key – Youki!” Sometimes they think my name is Ricky or Mickey but not too often.

    hmm, I remember something that happened in ED 140 I guess around 9 years ago, when I was an undergrad here at Berkeley. There was a student in class named Martin, and he said that if he went to Spain or South America he’d have no problem if people called him Martín (with the accented “i”), so why do people have such a problem with trying to “Americanize” Asian names? I rememeber thinking that he had a valid point, but names often have similar roots between English and Spanish (Tom/Tomas, Joseph/Jose, John/Juan, Michael/Miguel, Mary/Maria, Ann/Ana, Alice/Alicia) but Asian names often don’t have English counterparts (although they can often be translated, but I don’t really want to be called “snow” or “courage”). So English and Spanish names seem semiotically closer than English and Asian names (hah although I don’t think I would have used the word “semiotically” then).

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 9 April 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Aaminah, thanks for the comment. I agree with you that this could be propagating an “erasure” of sorts…My name-another one frequently mispronounced-is extremely important to me, and if someone were to “take it away” from me, it would be a violent act.

    Youki: The anecdote was very interesting, and I agree with you, the English and Spanish names tend to be semiotically and phonetically closer than “Asian” and English names. Heh the translation of my name would cause me a lot of grief. You know why.

  4. aaminahm on: 9 April 2009 at 7:21 pm

    If we want to get technical “Betty” is a Dutch and English word which is a shortening of Elizabeth or Beatrice. It means “God’s Promise”. So Betty isn’t American at all. The only truly American names are Native American. Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong about someone with a European name asking someone with an Asian name to change his or her name to an American name which is really European? And what about the European names which are more difficult to pronounce? Should we change our names to those to make life easier for you too? Betty you don’t even know your own name. So leave mine alone!

  5. Usree Bhattacharya on: 9 April 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Well, what is “American” after all? Her implication seems to be that “American”=English-affiliated/names driving from the Judeo-Christian tradition. So there seems to be a religious/Biblical angle as well, I’d wager.

    I have a feeling she had little sense of how this would snowball on her. The number of news articles are growing by the minute. My Facebook newsfeed has literally exploded with this news! Wow…in literally five minutes, the number of members of the “Down with Betty Brown” group on FB jumped from 124 to 211 members!

  6. Youki on: 9 April 2009 at 11:14 pm

    yeah I watched the video and I think her words are being decontextualized to a pretty great degree. They’re talking about voter identification issues, and note that she says (2:52), “Do you have any suggestion for us, something that would help the Chinese community, that would be easier on you?” It sounds like she’s interested in helping the Chinese community.

    Later on she says (3:24): “Well, rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese, I understand it’s a rather difficult language, do you think it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here such as, you’re talking about [light laughter from audience] — now I’m not talking about changing your name, I’m talking about the transliteration or whatever you refer to it as, that you could use with us.”

    When she says, “rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese” she seems to be referring to (in her mind) the Chinese script — specifically to Chinese characters written on official Chinese documents.

    From this video, I don’t see her as someone who is intentionally racist/supremacist, but someone who misspoke and has somewhat misguided intentions. She makes it pretty clear that she is only referring to names being used for voter identification purposes, and it sounds like her intentions are to help the Chinese community specifically, and all communities in general that use a non-Roman script.

    as the meme goes, “sucks to be her.” This does raise awareness of many cultural issues, but with my limited knowledge of her, as far as I know she was willing to work with people to address important issues like voting. I think the backlash resulting from this video is unjust.

    On a side note, I too have this problem. Most people in Japan would know me as “Yuuki” since that’s my name in Japanese script. Transliterated into English it would be “Yuuki” but my name is actually written “Youki”. A common variant is also “Yuki” (no google, I did not mean “yuki terada”). But because I was born here my birth certificate is written in English, so “Youki” is official. But if I was born in Japan and moved here, there could be issues with my name.

  7. Akshay on: 10 April 2009 at 3:56 am

    As you know, I always introduce myself as ‘Shay’ rather than ‘Akshay’. I was always known as ‘Akshay’ at school, and then changed when I started university. There are loads of reasons for this – the first one is that in Scotland, the first vowel in my name is much more likely to be pronounced /æ/ rather than the preferred /ə/ or /ɐ/, and it really grates on my nerves to hear my name pronounced that way. I used to correct people, but they would forget, and I’d rather have half my name pronounced perfectly than my full name pronounced incorrectly.

    Also, as you suggest, it’s much easier to fit in straight away. Shay is a name which is fairly unique, memorable, and easy to pronounce for most people – the perfect combination. I used to really hate the looks of people who would have obviously forgotten how to say my name, and were too embarrassed to ask – it’s been much easier since then.

    However, since I started putting Shay down on official forms, and seeing it written on letters, it’s pretty weird. I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m taking it a bit too far and that even though I like it, it isn’t the name my parents gave me. This is not helped by the fact that Indians get extraordinarily pissed off when they hear that I shorten my name – my relatives are probably the only impediment to my changing it on Facebook! And I must confess that when I hear my old friends from Glasgow pronounce my name correctly, I still get a thrill that is rather lacking when I hear ‘Shay’.

    Just random thoughts of mine… Though as an Indian who hasn’t changed her name, I’d like to hear your thoughts on other Indians who do 🙂

  8. Usree Bhattacharya on: 10 April 2009 at 6:29 am

    Yup, hence update 2…Thanks for the partial transcript, Youki!

  9. Usree Bhattacharya on: 10 April 2009 at 6:38 am

    Just saw your comment, Akshay. Ya, I have been pretty silent on my own name in this discussion. Well, it’s irritating to hear it mispronounced…which is often.

    So my name is actually pronounced differently in the original Sanskrit, than it is in Bengali, which is my mother tongue (Bengali does not have a “s”, only something close to “sh”, briefly).

    I have never once considered being called by any other name. Weirdly, there are only a couple of people in the world who call me by any other name (two of my aunts). Everyone else either doesn’t use my name that much (which is often), or uses Usree. No “Ush,” “Shree” etc.

    I guess I have been too much of a nomad, and too attached to my own name to consider using a variant. It would be painful, emotionally wrenching to consider another name, and I couldn’t….

    Thanks for sharing your own story…and I know, I think I was one of the few people who called you AK-SHAY during your stay in Berkeley? 🙂 Ya, I don’t like Shay as a variation, but I understand what motivates you…VERY interesting thought about how it;s different for you orally/written down! More on that!

  10. Usree Bhattacharya on: 12 April 2009 at 9:52 am

    Ha ha ha ha! I ran my name through the Betty Brown Name Generator, and here are the results!

    My Betty Brown Approved Name is Louise “Cracker Barrel” Brown.
    Take Betty Brown Name Generator today!
    Created with Rum and Monkey‘s Name Generator Generator.

  11. Youki on: 12 April 2009 at 9:58 am

    Opie “Pottery Barn” Brown

    heh we haven’t updated the time for PDT, doing that now

  12. Usree Bhattacharya on: 12 April 2009 at 11:00 am

    Ha ha ha ha ha.

    I wonder if there’s some logic to the naming process, or is it random?


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