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Why some Asian Americans are embracing their heritage by dropping their anglicized names

April 6, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 22.4%. 3 min read.

Amid cries for greater diversity, inclusion and representation for Asian Americans across all sectors, many, including high-profile creatives and celebrities, are rethinking their names.

Like many Asian Americans, the 29-year-old Hmong American artist was always switching between two names: an Asian name and her "American" name.

"When I went as Jennifer, I felt like I was playing a role -- this White-assimilated, American Dream type," said Her, now based in Chicago.

There's a long history of Asian Americans using Anglo or anglicized names -- whether they adopted new White-sounding names like John or Jennifer, or changed the pronunciation or spelling of their original name to better suit English speakers.

And as the national conversation shifts, many Asian Americans, including high-profile creatives and celebrities, are facing similar personal reckonings with their names.

The list includes comedian and producer Hasan Minhaj, whose interview on the Ellen DeGeneres went viral when he corrected her on the pronunciation of his name; Marvel actress Chloe Bennet, who said she changed her surname from Wang because "Hollywood is racist"; and "Star Wars" actress Kelly Marie Tran, who called her family's decision to adopt anglicized names "a literal erasure of culture. "

Asian Americans have been Anglicizing their names since the first major wave of immigrants in the late 1800s and into the 20th century -- a practice also common among Jewish and European immigrants, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

English speakers often had trouble pronouncing or spelling non-English names, and for many immigrants it was just easier to choose a new "American" name.

An increasing number of Japanese Americans changed their personal names during wartime in order to "prove their patriotism and to reaffirm their American identities," according to a 1999 paper in Names, a journal dedicated to onomastics (the study of names).

Asians in the 19th and early 20th century were largely portrayed as "strange, but also inferior, dirty, uncivilized," said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Asian Americans have continued to proactively adapt their names, many citing ongoing forms of discrimination.

Growing up, she internalized racist narratives "that made my parents deem it necessary to abandon their real names and adopt American ones -- Tony and Kay -- so it was easier for others to pronounce, a literal erasure of culture that still has me aching to the core," she wrote in the New York Times, before declaring, "You might know me as Kelly . . .

Names aren't just an arbitrary collection of letters and sounds; for Asian Americans, who often juggle multiple languages, cultures and socioethnic circles, a name can encompass various elements of identity.

The number of people adopting new names fell in the late 20th century, said Smith, the former USCIS historian.

"While the economic, legal, systemic pressure to maintain one name grew, social pressure to Americanize names also lessened as more Americans embraced cultural pluralism or multiculturalist views," Smith said in an email.

And in the US, immigration policies in the late 20th century have allowed the Asian American population to increase exponentially, said Choy.

"That's just such a different social context to be in, compared to the way it was in the '50s, '60s, '70s," she said, adding that technological advances and globalization mean the "dominance of Anglo-American culture" is now "lessened. "

And among young Asian Americans, there is also an increasing awareness of what their immigrant parents or grandparents had to give up to survive -- a "realization that there is a loss of heritage and culture from the Asian home country," said Choy.

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