Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Asian by Any Other Name

Current Miss Hong Kong: Edelweiss Cheung

Source: Haverford College News (by Gregory Toy)

I found this editorial very interesting and wanted to dissect it some more.

My parents have often told me that if I had entered this world as a member of the fairer sex, my name would undoubtedly have been Julia. But as fate would have it, I was born male, and with the unexpected birth of a boy, my parents faced a terrible dilemma: what would be my name? Finally they decided on Gregory, in honor of both the actor Gregory Peck and Gregory Lane, a major street near their first home. While at Haverford my name has garnered various compliments from other students and even from a friendly bank teller. However, this string of praise came to an abrupt end last semester when, during breakfast in the Dining Center with a friend, I had the distinct pleasure of being introduced to someone who would leave a lasting impression on me.

Does outer appearance create an expectation for a certain name? Do names necessarily need to be representative of our racial and ethnic identity? Though these questions had never passed through my mind before, their answers became immediately clear when my new acquaintance demurely and seriously exclaimed, “Is your name really Greg? That doesn’t sound very Asian. I thought all Asians had, you know, Asian-sounding names.”

Usually Asian parents have a boatload of male names and then scramble when it's a girl. It's rarely the other way around. Also complimenting a name like Gregory seems strange, it's an common name anyone could have.

Is your name really Greg? People still ask that? Greg says he's 19 years old (seen later in the article). I think every Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean even Japanese kid born in North America since 1990 has an English name. So I can't see why that would be a surprise. I would question the last name Toy more than the first name Greg, but that is not mentioned in this article.

Despite the fact that there was no reason for me to lie about my name in this rather common situation, my conversation partner continued to seem skeptical. Based on the information that my eloquent acquaintance provided, I’m forced to conclude that some people wouldn’t be able to identify me as an individual of Asian ancestry without a particular name, even though my appearance may resemble that of other mongoloids.

I wondered whether this seemingly enlightened acquaintance would prefer if my name were something more along the lines of “sukiyaki” or “kimchi.” Would those names better describe one facet of my existence? Just because my first name does not have a Japanese, Chinese, or other “Asian” origin does not mean that I need one to be happy or comfortable with myself, and just because I have a more American or more Asian sounding name does not mean that I solely identify as one or the other.

Strange. Why would anyone lie about their name ever? The name doesn't have anything to do with race. There are many Asian kids who are adopted by American parents and have names like "Dave Smith" or "Tom Harris". This is especially fun for employers who call a "Dave Smith" for an interview and an Asian guys shows up! Sukiyaki and Kimchi are names of food, not of people.

In the end, though angry and taken aback, I could muster no response or reaction other than a furrowed brow and quizzical stare. Neither my friend (who had introduced me to this embodiment of ignorance) nor I knew how to respond to these unexpected comments or how to react other than to walk away in order to defuse the situation, questioning whether Haverford was truly a hotbed of insensitivity and multicultural unawareness.

In that one instance, I probably learned more about my identity as an Asian American than in the nineteen years of my blissful existence. Ignorant and intolerant questions, like the ones asked of me, have made me reevaluate the way I view my name, my identity, and that unexpected conversation has sparked in me an increased interest in social justice and awareness.

Why's there to be so angry about? A person can easily ask me, "How'd you get the name Tracy?".. and I would simply say, I was not born with the name Tracy. My Asian name isn't even that hard to pronounce. But it was my older brother who had a difficult name and in Grade 1 decided to change to a common English one. So the family, dad, mom, brother and I (who was only 3 at the time) decided to all legally get English names. It cost us $100.

Is this really an ignorant and intolerant question that would cause you to reevaluate your entire existence? People ask all sorts of questions all the time. People are ignorant and when they ask ignorant questions, you just answer them. Not all questions are hurtful, all I can do is to answer directly and educate them more. Because someone wanted to know why you have an English name, it's a social injustice? Come on!

After much thought and conversation with others, if given the opportunity to travel back in time and respond to this acquaintance’s questions, I probably would say something like, “Yes, my name really is Greg. No, it is not of Asian origin; it actually is an English derivation of a Greek name. Contrary to popular belief, not all Asians have Asian-sounding names in the same way that not all Americans have American-sounding names.” But though I have been able to formulate this response after a great deal of time, I did not have it when I most needed it.

I don't think you even have to go that far. Just say, "My parents gave me an English name for convenience since we now live in America. Do you know any other Asians with English names or am I the first?" And carry on the discussion from there.

Only one question still remains in my mind: How can we prepare ourselves for the more dramatic and violent situations that we will inevitably face once we leave the Haverbubble? Sure, we attend PAF and AMA sessions and have support systems that, in theory, prepare us to be respectful citizens, but these discussions have no impact upon the people beyond, or maybe even within, our community; people who may not share in the Haverford tenets of trust, concern, and mutual respect. Although we try to avoid such awkward, uncomfortable, and unexpected situations and experiences as mine, we desperately need them in order to grow as prepared and aware individuals.

Oh boy. dramatic and violent situations? Holy shit. You've got alot to learn boy. Not everyone who asks a question has intent. This was a person who perhaps had never an Asian guy with an English name and was curious how you got it. He's not out to get you, or doesn't think you're a freak. People are allowed to ask questions. I'm ignorant about lot of things and have been know to ask a bunch of stupid questions too, that's how we learn.

I don't think this was an awkward, uncomfortable, and unexpected situation or experience at all? I get asked all sorts of questions all the time.

What do the rest of you think? Anyone got any cool English names like Kitty? :)


Hank said...

Let's start switching it up.

Let's name non-Asian kids Asian names.

"Your name is Qìnghóng Robinson?'re black. Do you- no Asian ancestry?! wtf"

Degenerasian said...

I wonder. If you're a white couple for example working in China for years and years and years and have a child, would you give it a Chinese name.

Nah. Wouldn't happen.

Anonymous said...

Really the problem is that the original writer of the article hasn't yet solidified the idea of who he is yet.

Least he got a proper English one.

What a person calls themselves is an integral part of their identity, and if there isn't absolute faith in that, simple offending questions like, you don't have an typical name for your race, tend to hit home a bit harder.

It's a lot like the asian restaurants meme going on at CP.

Degenerasian said...

I always thought a name is just a name. You create your own identify by your actions and maturing.