Casey Juanxi Li

May 26, 2021

An immigrant's English name is effective action, not capitulation

Some recent articles frame the adoption of Caucasian names by Asian American immigrants as a kind of cultural capitulation, and a denigration of identity. They also frame the choice to reclaim birth names as a proud return to truth.

I disagree with this framing on almost every level.

Let's start with what a birth name is. Nobody is yet suggesting that we ask all cultures to accept all writing systems. As a practical matter, most ethnic names are still Romanizations. If you were born with a Chinese name, do you choose Pinyin or Wade-Giles? Do you go with the CCP approved ISO standard, or some old British folks who wrote a book? These are both man-made projections. Neither is worthy of veneration.

Secondly - evolution has primed humans to notice discomfort in fellow herd members, and to adjust behaviour to minimize it. This is the biological basis for the emotion of shame. An immigrant with a name which is unpronounceable by most of the inhabitants in their new home will repeatedly find themselves in situations where others are made uncomfortable by the most fundamental of social acts: the introduction.

The morality of this is not a productive discussion: the fact remains that it will happen. Babies are born with the ability to distinguish and produce any sound, but as we grow we are increasingly limited to the sounds of our native language. A name can be literally unpronounceable. We will occasionally come across kind and curious souls who care to delve into the pronunciation and etymology of our names, but most folks just want to get on with their lives and not feel bad about their lack of ability. Can we really fault them for that?

None of this is to minimize the crippling effect that shame can have on a person. The inherent difficulty of immigration is finding out that ingrained parts of your habits, your beliefs, and your family are fundamentally unadaptive to your new society.  The argument for going out of your way to approach foreign cultures with curiosity instead of discomfort - even when you can afford not to - is not some piece of political rhetoric around diversity and inclusion. It is that a human battling shame cannot excel.

Immigration is an experience that is guaranteed to make immigrants feel shame simply for being who they are - not because the new culture is bad, or bigoted, or racist - but because it is simply different from theirs.

But let's also debunk the idea that your name is you - an encapsulation of your identity, to be fiercely defended against all insults. Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the Monkey King, goes through no less than nine name changes during his transformation from ego-driven beast to enlightened sage in Journey to the West (西游记). Many of these names (齐天大圣 - "Great Sage, Heaven's Equal") are aspirational, premature, and self-imposed. (Is this so strange? After all, who among us hasn't fancied ourselves the "Co-founder and CEO" of a 1-person company with no revenue?)

The idea that we have one immutable name is an extremely modern conceit. The idea of rejecting the genetic lottery is fundamental to democracy and meritocracy. Similarly, why should our identities be defined by a decision made by the people who gave birth to us, as opposed to our own choices? 

I dislike seeing the rhetoric of victimhood used to describe something which is a stellar example of human empowerment and adaptation. Very few of us will ever have the privilege of naming ourselves. It is an act of self-conscious awareness: a realization that identity is not something you are born with, but something that you define every day through choice and action.

If someone repeatedly runs into the same problem day after day, and refuses to change, even though the cause is obvious, we'd say they aren't very bright.

If they adapt to feedback and implement solutions, we call them nimble and effective.

Are names really so different?