What’s in an Asian American Name?

by Guest Contributor Theresa Celebran Jones, originally published at Hyphen

Baby!

I’m a full-time remote worker. Most of the people I work with on a daily basis have never seen my face, and know me only by my emails and my phone voice. I often wonder about what these people picture, of the face they try to attach to my name. And I wonder if they’d be surprised to know I’m Asian.

I’d been a little conflicted about my name since getting married (as evidenced by this comment I posted on this blog long ago), but my maiden name did not sound particularly ethnic either, and since the baby came before the wedding, I had, in my mind, changed my name to match my family’s — not just my husband’s.

Before all that, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had tons of added baggage about naming our daughter. We didn’t want to give our child a name too similar to any family members, and we wanted to steer clear of any names on a Top 100 list. We wanted to ensure our kid wouldn’t be stuck in a class with five other people of the same name, and have to take on an awful nickname like “Mike Jones 2.”

Additionally, I wanted a meaningful Asian-sounding name that would flow well with Jones, the 5th most common surname in the United States. Truthfully, and probably because I went to a predominantly white school system in the 80’s and 90’s, I was picturing a teacher reading “Firstname Jones?” off of a roster on the first day of school, seeing an Asian kid raise his or her hand, then saying, “That’s not funny; where is Firstname Jones?”

When our daughter was born in December of 2007, we had already agreed on a name that miraculously melded Filipino and Korean cultures. In one culture, it was the name of an ancient goddess; in another, it translated to “new one.” The name had come easily to us and it fit her perfectly.

Well, we’re expecting our second child’s arrival in February of next year and having this debate all over again. We haven’t started seriously considering any names yet, as it’s still too early to tell if we’re having a boy or girl, but I’m revisiting all the questions I’d previously asked myself about what made a good name.

I’m unexpectedly having to face some old prejudices too.

Of the boys’ names we’ve thrown around so far, we’ve strangely been agreeing on Biblical ones. And we’re still trying to steer clear of any Top 100 names, meaning no Aidens, Jadens, Haydens, Bradens, Maddoxes, Jaxons, Hunters, or Camerons.

But back then, I was concerned about choosing a name that sounded “too white.” Admittedly, I wouldn’t have had a problem naming our child “Michael” if we had a Korean last name — even if it were as common as Lee.

I’m tempted to drop the “ever-so-slightly ethnic” rule of we end up having a boy, but mostly because it really narrows the pool of desirable names. I felt (and still sort of feel) that more liberties can be taken when naming a girl. Although I have no evidence to back this up, my extended family has told me that boys with “weird” names would be more susceptible to ridicule, more subject to beat-downs. But this also comes with the baggage of growing up Asian American in a predominantly white suburb.

And maybe it is because of those ingrained prejudices, but when first considering names, I had come to think that those just-different-enough boys’ names — something like “Bayani Jones” — somehow sounded un-masculine, even though Bayani means something as badass as “hero” and is considered a “truly Filipino” name predating Spanish colonization.

I find it mostly troubling that I think it would make a beautiful name for a girl-child, but not for a boy, and it is documented as a boys’ name. I’m trying to unpack why I feel that way, although I should mention that Bayani did get vetoed by my husband, simply because he didn’t like the name.

If you’re a parent, did you consider or struggle with the idea of giving your child an ethnic name? Do you think this is an issue unique to third-generation babies, or multi-ethnic households?

  • sria

    Interesting. I definitely went through a similar experience when naming our children. I don’t know the right answer to this. My conflict has been between being true to my roots vs. proving my American patriotism. When dealing with teachers and instructors jumbling up my kids’ names I’m oft thinking, ‘oh, i hope they know we’re patriotic and very American. i hope they won’t judge my kids” and so on. That being said, we did go with easy to pronounce Muslim names that were also not on the FBI’s most wanted list (i.e., no Hussains, Osamas, Mohammads, …).  

  • Anonymous

    As one of three siblings who have the most common biblical names ever, I have to say, they are no fun. :(

  • http://rancidraves.blogspot.com Kelli Oliver George

    My husband is from India, but of an ethnic group that is Catholic.  His last name is Anglo and traditionally, his family members even had Anglo first names.  In the 70s, there was a surge of Indian pride and many parents from this ethnic group began giving their kids more traditional Indian names.   Folks are often confused by my own last name, thinking that instead of changing it upon marriage, I just kept my maiden name.  When naming our own kids, I wanted to give my kids a little something from India, particularly in light of our particularly boring last name of George.  I tried to choose names that were easy to pronounce and not overly complicated or “odd-sounding” — certainly names that would not limit their futures considering we will probably always live in the US.

  • http://rancidraves.blogspot.com Kelli Oliver George

    My husband is from India, but of an ethnic group that is Catholic.  His last name is Anglo and traditionally, his family members even had Anglo first names.  In the 70s, there was a surge of Indian pride and many parents from this ethnic group began giving their kids more traditional Indian names.   Folks are often confused by my own last name, thinking that instead of changing it upon marriage, I just kept my maiden name.  When naming our own kids, I wanted to give my kids a little something from India, particularly in light of our particularly boring last name of George.  I tried to choose names that were easy to pronounce and not overly complicated or “odd-sounding” — certainly names that would not limit their futures considering we will probably always live in the US.

  • Luckyfatima

    This is a common topic in the Muslim American community and also among non-Muslim + Muslim couples who opt for a ‘Muslim name.’ (Islamically there is no such thing as a Muslim name, but generally we mean a name from Arabic, Turkish, or Persian that is historically recognizable as Muslim and has a sound meaning in one of those languages) We even have some “easy for the non-Muslim mainstream people to say” standards that are very common for multiracial kids with one Muslim parent, and also for Muslim-American kids of whatever ethnic background:  Adam, Shaan, Rayaan, Zain for boys and Leila, Maryam, Sara, Aliya, and Yasmine. 

    I am white Euro-origin American and my husband is Pakistani origin and multi-ethnic (Pakistani is a nationality but not a race/ethnicity, just like American, so we hesitate to describe our kids as “half-Pakistani half-American” or “half-Pakistani half-white” despite the fact that others may view them as such)  Anyhow, for our girls, we opted for Arabic origin names that are less common and also a bit ethnically ambiguous. They are kind of flowery sounding girls names. 

    Funny, but I also think for a boy we might go for one of those “easy for the non-Muslims” standard names just because I have the same issues about boys being more likely to be targeted for bullying. I have no idea if that is true, but it is just my feeling.

    I do think Bayani is a great name, though. I think phonetically it has a beautiful aesthetic.

  • Luckyfatima

    This is a common topic in the Muslim American community and also among non-Muslim + Muslim couples who opt for a ‘Muslim name.’ (Islamically there is no such thing as a Muslim name, but generally we mean a name from Arabic, Turkish, or Persian that is historically recognizable as Muslim and has a sound meaning in one of those languages) We even have some “easy for the non-Muslim mainstream people to say” standards that are very common for multiracial kids with one Muslim parent, and also for Muslim-American kids of whatever ethnic background:  Adam, Shaan, Rayaan, Zain for boys and Leila, Maryam, Sara, Aliya, and Yasmine. 

    I am white Euro-origin American and my husband is Pakistani origin and multi-ethnic (Pakistani is a nationality but not a race/ethnicity, just like American, so we hesitate to describe our kids as “half-Pakistani half-American” or “half-Pakistani half-white” despite the fact that others may view them as such)  Anyhow, for our girls, we opted for Arabic origin names that are less common and also a bit ethnically ambiguous. They are kind of flowery sounding girls names. 

    Funny, but I also think for a boy we might go for one of those “easy for the non-Muslims” standard names just because I have the same issues about boys being more likely to be targeted for bullying. I have no idea if that is true, but it is just my feeling.

    I do think Bayani is a great name, though. I think phonetically it has a beautiful aesthetic.

  • Tamcho

    Simple solution: in my generation in Malaysia, we were given both Chinese and Western names. So we had the choice of where to use which names.

  • Jleigh

    My partner is Indian and I’m white. Our kids will have his last name (obviously Indian/Middle Eastern sounding) and he wants our kids to have Indian first names. I’m OK with this as long as My parents and I can pronounce them, but the thing that bothers me is that he also wants to follow tradition and give all our kids his first name as their middle names. I would rather skip this and really want one of my family names to be used as the middle name instead. I totally understand the importance of passing down his culture to our children, but I want to feel like there’s something of me in their names too. If they get his last name, his first name as their middle name, and an Indian first name I would feel so erased. Talking about it is difficult though because I’m reminded of my white privilege and I feel selfish for feeling this way.

    • Ike

      In my opinion, this is a situation that also involves male privilege, in that, in most cultures, the kids get the father’s last name. In your case, your kids will also be getting your husband’s first name as their middle names. It’s totally understandable that, as their mother, you’d want something in their names to reflect you. After all, you’re the one who has to give birth and is statistically more likely to care for them. As for how to bring up the topic, I’m not the best person to give advice, because I’m upset over my dog getting my spouse’s last name (at least on vet forms) when we’d agreed that he would change his last name to mine (he didn’t), and that any offspring would get my last name (yes, I know it’s a dog, not a kid).

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  • http://agirlcalledraven.blogspot.com sarah

    I guess I’m white ethnic in that I identify strongly as Italian-American. I’m third generation (great-grandparents came over). My mom’s relatives wanted my parents to name me “Serafina” and were a little horrified that they named me “Sarah” instead.

  • Yo!

    Names and the values we attach to them fascinate me. Coming from a Bangladeshi family, I have a name that only my family & family friends call me by, which is different to my proper formal name everyone else (at work, my social circle, people I hang with, basically anyone non-Bengali…so the vast majority of people I know etc) call me by. Ditto with my father, mother and brother (we all have 2 names, one private used within the family and one used outside). Then there are the last names we bear. My mother’s  is completely different to my father’s…and when I was born, my dad literally made up a last name for me  out of nowhere; so now the only person in my entire family that I share a last name with happens to be my brother (we don’t bear either parents’ last name). So a typical family of 4 with 3 different last names.

    My mother’s last name is actually her mother’s maiden name which is her mother’s last name (my maternal uncle bears my grandfathers last name). As for my father; his last name is different to either of my grandparents’ surnames as well as his brothers’ (my paternal grandfather chose a different last name for each of his sons and daughters). Needless to say, trying to research family history more than a few generations back is pretty much impossible especially as family elders die.

    As for me, I love my name (both my unofficial one and my proper one that is on my birth certificate) because I think personally think they sound nice and they fit me well. I like the fact that my father made up a last name for me at birth (I think it makes a cute story)…but I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable by the way it (and I) am perceived by others. It sounds quite Arabic/Muslim sounding rather than Bengali, so when I am around Muslim people, they tend to see me as such which is uncomfortable to me as a Bangladeshi-Australian atheist.

    In terms of names for my future children, I wish to continue this tradition of using a pretty and ethnic name at home (flowery, feminine names for both genders) but then giving my kids unisex, functional names on their birth certificates and for their professional lives. I’m quite the fan of masculine first names as I think they sound professional and serious, so my ideal name for either gender would probably be Quentin or Gabriel. (I read somewhere that a good way of choosing a name would be to see if sounded like a future CEO, Prime Minister or High Court Judge).
    In terms of last names, I’d like it if my partner was ok with the idea of creating a completely new name (unrelated to either of ours) for our kids, but realistically given the men I tend to be attracted to, they will probably end up with Korean, Anglo or Sinhalese/Tamil surnames.

    I don’t think I’ll ever change my name especially within the professional sphere, but may consider using my partners name in my passport if it would make travel to certain regions (the Arab Middle East, Israel, Malaysia) that much easier (I don’t consider that ‘changing my name’ though, as I intend to go with the name I was born with in all other areas of everyday life).

  • Anonymous

    It makes me sad that we have to live in a society in which people even have to balance naming their child something relevant to their ethnic background with something easy on the English speaker’s ears and that won’t result in additional burdens as the child grows up. I know these aren’t easy decisions for parents to make, but reading through the comments I find the ordeal a little soul killing. As a black American with a name pretty much straight from the British Isles, I’m always envious of people who have any ties to their land of ancestry and have the option of choosing a name for their child from their heritage. We want life for our children to be easy, yet we don’t want them to be completely divorced from their cultural background and swallowed into an assimilated borg-like mass. Do you think names will get more homogenous before they get more diverse or vice/versa?

    • http://twitter.com/plumrose93 Miss Browne

      Ha no way. I’m a black woman born and raised in the UK, by West Indian  parents with  Hyphenated first name Ghanian-Hebrew. It is the bane of my life. I spend most of my time exaplaining it,  the fact that it’s unusual, for the uk, then unusual for a west indian to have an ghanian name,  and why the hell did my parents decide on that name. This has been with me for 20+ years.

      I like my names, but i go into meetings and work allowing for these conversations, It affects my job for heavens sake!! Some days people get so bloody intrusive i shorten my introduction to  my anglo surname and  the difference it makes.

      no fawning, no questions.

      sorry for ranting but… we really do underestimate the gravity of something like a name.

  • http://eggsandbakey.wordpress.com/ jaqbuncad

    Oh, this. I tried, I did, to find names for my children that would reflect their heritage, and couldn’t do it: between concerns about misappropriation (because really, how much claim does a third-generation kid raised in the white suburbs and can’t even speak the language have?) and parents’ and in-laws concerns about the kids getting teased, harassed, or encountering trouble with getting into an educational program or even a job down the line based on their names … we ended up going with some very mainstream, white names.

    I wish you the best in your search – may you find something meaningful, resonant, and perfect for your little one. (And congratulations!)

  • Lyonside

    My children’s last name is ethnic (Garcia). I didn’t change my name when I got married, since Garcia is the Spanish equivalent of “Jones” or “Lee”, and my spouse ALREADY has problems flying because of a SOB in NY who owes back child support with his same name (different middle initial, thank God). Our first kidlet has an Anglo first name, named after my deceased best friend who was like a sister to me. The middle name (Isabella) is a nod to the Spanish spoken by both my spouse’s parents, as well as to my gram, who wishes that were her name and it’s how she’s known in the family. Our second kidlet was named after my now-deceased mother in law, with modifications for gender, which means unfortunately that he has a VERY popular name right now. Totally unintentional. He has an Anglo middle name that could easily be converted into Spanish if he chooses (Alexander => Alejandro).

    Considering that neither my husband or myself are fluent Spanish speakers (I know more than he does, which is sad), I thought that a firmly Spanish first and last name would have the kids constantly be presumed to be Spanish-speaking. I know my kids are not going to deny any part of their backgrounds, at least at this stage. When they’re older, they’re going to be in situations where they choose, but I hope they ID with every part of their heritage. And if they wanted to ID with their Spanish middle names or variants, I’d be fine with that. The flexibility is what was important to me, and honoring those we’ve lost in the family.

  • Anonymous

    The answer would be that it depends on what kind of “exotic” name the immigrant has.  If their name is mistaken for a “black” name, then they will have the kinds of trouble that has been described . A name that is exotic but that is otherwise assumed to be European, for example, won’t have that problem.  
    It’s not really that complicated and there are a lot of individual buckets that all of these names are placed in. 
    A Jamal or Kesha will probably be assumed to be black.  Vladimir or Natalya will not.  

    • Anonymous

      While I know that names that are typically associated with African Americans are given a negative connotation, do you have evidence that unique names (as CocoJames so accurately put it) of other generally non-Germanic or Hebrew names don’t face similar issues of discrimination? I would think that depending on the context an Ichigo or Abdul might be treated as problematic as Kesha. 

      This is of course ignoring trends in names, in which many traditionally unique names that originate from Asian, Middle Eastern, and even African American heritage are starting to creep into the more “usual” name pool.

  • Anonymous

    The answer would be that it depends on what kind of “exotic” name the immigrant has.  If their name is mistaken for a “black” name, then they will have the kinds of trouble that has been described . A name that is exotic but that is otherwise assumed to be European, for example, won’t have that problem.  
    It’s not really that complicated and there are a lot of individual buckets that all of these names are placed in. 
    A Jamal or Kesha will probably be assumed to be black.  Vladimir or Natalya will not.  

  • miga

    I think Bayani sound really badass. 

    2 year old me:  Hi.  I’m mieko.  What’s your name?
    baby b: BAYANI.
    me: Woah.  Cool.  Let’s be friends.

    Plus, as a kid whose parents decided to give me a name for each of my major heritages (mieko azaria imani gavia) I really enjoy it, and was never ashamed or wished I had a different name.  It’s annoying, yeah, when people get confused, mispronounce, make fun of, or ask why I have such and such name when I don’t look such and such, but it’s also a sense of pride.  No one can take my name, my heritage, away from me- no matter how I look or sound.  I got made fun of as a kid, but it only made me stronger and more fiercely tied to my roots.  When I have kids, they’re going to have names that connect them to their ethnicities as well.

  • http://wthellokitty.tumblr.com Hello Kitty

    I am Chinese-American and my husband is Japanese.  I have an unofficial American name, which is typical for second generation C-A’s my age (older Gen X/young boomers).  We chose American first names  and my husband figured out middle names that translate well into both languages for our sons.  There was much discussion regarding the middle names, with family members offering unhelpful advice and picky opinions.  It finally came down to the wire.  
     It was important that out kids have names that reflect all three cultures–American, Japanese, and Chinese.  I would have gone for two middle names if my mother hadn’t made such a loud stink.

  • Kat

    Regarding Bayani: Well, it’s that patriarchal baggage we carry. Boy’s names for girls are fine, but feminine is “disgusting” and “gay” (which of course is also “gross”), thus girls’ names for boys are absolutely unacceptable. Girls are Ashley, Riley, Madison, Leighton, Andie, Rainford (Andie MacDowell’s daughter), Sprague, Paris, Howard Allen (Anne Rice’s birth name) etc etc, but boys will never be Susanna, Cathy, Athena or Julia. Girls can wear trousers, boys can’t wear skirts. So personally I’d say go for Bayani. Don’t let sexism of others stop you.

    I absolutely despise most of the “popular” names you’ve mentioned, since I hate that trick of turning family names into first names, but that’s a completely different topic.

    On different note: On your Jones name, a friend of mine is called Wendi Hong. She is Scandinavian with parents who had an odd taste (for a White chick) in names and married a Korean. She gets a lot of weird reactions when people realise that she is not Asian as they expect her to be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erikakharada Erika Harada

    I intend on keeping my current last name and also am going to hyphenate last names for any future children…so I’m not too concerned about what first name I will give the child. It’s pretty obvious from my name that I’m Japanese American :)
    But I wouldn’t mind if the child’s first name, like mine, can be used in both Japan and the US, so it would be easier on the relatives. Ami/Amy, Kai (for a boy), etc.

  • j.

    OT – I recently realized that, out of all of my Asian friends and coworkers, I am the only one who uses a distinctly Asian name in everyday situations. The others generally have Asian first names, but go by more American names anywhere outside the family. I myself have an American middle name, and went through a brief period in high school when I tried going by it online, but I couldn’t do it. It just felt too weird and “off.” I grew up being called by my Asian name, and being called anything else doesn’t sound right.

  • http://diaryofamessylady.wordpress.com/ Lauren

    We had a similar conversation when picking out names for our daughter. I really wanted a Celtic name since that reflects my heritage, but we were worried about people not being able to say or spell it.

    • Jenny Islander

      I discovered recently that my niece by marriage, who also has Celtic heritage (on both sides of the family IIRC), has a Celtic name that everyone, including the niece herself, has mispronounced for her entire life.  And she’s almost 30.  Luckily she isn’t nearly as into the whole Celtic Twilight romantic dabbling thing as her parents were back then, so she’s unlikely to sidle up to an actual Irish person and try to bond over heritage.

      Assuming that’s your profile, you code as white in most/all situations, correct?  Our family all look Northwest European/WASP glow-in-the-dark white.  It confers an astonishing amount of privilege WRT names, doesn’t it?  My kids’ first and middle names are Greek + Japanese, Hebrew by way of Latin + English, and Hebrew by way of French + Anglicized Irish and nobody blinks.

    • Jenny Islander

      *photo in your.  Kind of important phrase there. 

    • Jenny Islander

      *photo in your.  Kind of important phrase there. 

    • Jenny Islander

      *photo in your.  Kind of important phrase there. 

    • Jenny Islander

      *photo in your.  Kind of important phrase there. 

  • Lila

    I don’t know what country you are in. In the US, a resume with a typically white name is more likely to get an interview than an identical resume with a name that isn’t typically white. Of course, that’s just one factor to consider. Also, by the time your child is job-seeking, things may have changed (though I doubt they’ll have changed all that much).

  • http://twitter.com/Minivet Minivet

    I recently met someone in person whom I had only been dealing with with over the phone for a few weeks before, surnamed Young, and I was indeed surprised for a moment to find he was Asian-American. Notably, he has a very slight accent, which I noticed over the phone but put in a “white” box, and which immediately moved into an “Asian” box when face-to-face.

    • miga

      Funny, whenever someone’s got the last name Young I assume it’s Korean or Chinese.