By Laylita Day
Growing up with an unusual name is hard enough on its own, but as in my case, it is even worse when one grows up in an almost all-white small, rural town in the South. I was constantly subjugated to mispronunciations, misspellings and those who did not even want to bother, asking for a nickname, something they could easily pronounce. These interactions constantly left me feeling both frustrated and angry.
One the one hand I was mad at my parents for giving me a name that was so difficult for everyone else, but I was also fiercely protective of it for the uniqueness it gave me. The funny thing though is that my name Laylita was not chosen for ethnicity reasons (I am half Taiwanese), but simply because my dad had always hated the commonness of his Anglo name and wanted his children to have something unique.
Fast-forward to when I moved to California and I soon learned that my name while not spelled exactly the same, “Lalita” rather than my “Laylita,” was a name occasionally found in both Hispanic and Indian cultures. So now while I still face the mispronunciations, misspellings and nickname requests, I sometimes get questions of whether I am Hispanic or Indian. In fact, I think many people, including my boyfriend when we first met, assume I am Hispanic just with a differently spelled version of Lalita.
So when the British band The Ting Tings came out with the song “That’s Not My Name” in 2007, it would pop into my head whenever someone got my name wrong, becoming a sort of theme song associated with people’s difficulty with my name. This song, while not specifically about ethnic names, of course can apply to anyone who has ever had problems concerning their unusual name. And for Asians in America, this problem can take forms of discrimination associated with their race as much as with pronunciation.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, name changing for immigrants was commonplace, seen as part of the assimilation process. Take Anna May Wong for example. A film actress in the early 20th century, she was born Wong Liu Tsong and most likely adopted the “Anna May” for pronunciation and assimilation purposes. But as Sam Roberts states in his New York Times article, this process was easier for European immigrants because of their physical features while Blacks and Asians would always be easily identified despite name changes. These days though far fewer immigrants opt to change their names to something more Anglicized as Roberts discovered when examining name changes for New York in June of 2010. While this shows that assimilation is no longer the norm in America, discrimination based on one’s name(s) is still prominent.
Actress Chole Bennet, playing Daisy Johnson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has said that she changed her last name from Wang to Bennet because she was having trouble getting jobs. This works even more in her favor because she could be considered “white-passing,” thus allowing her to bypass the racial discrimination attributed to her Asian last name. But is it okay for her to use her white looks and changed last name to avoid the problems of getting jobs while being Asian? Or should we instead focus on eliminating the racism that goes with ethnic names rather than giving into the biased system? What is more perplexing is the fact that Bennet’s character has an Asian mom on the show, so it feels as if Hollywood is sending mixed signals about racial diversity and discrimination. Why is it okay for Bennet to be portrayed as Asian on the show but then be turned down for employment because she really is Asian and has an Asian last name? Such a case seems to exhibit an opinion in media and entertainment that they have to show diversity here and there, but behind the scenes their attitude toward diversity is just the opposite.
I am in no way criticizing Bennet for changing her last name. Such a decision is personal and entirely up to her. If she or anyone else for that matter wants to change their name then that is their right. Other Asians who have changed their names or created a simplified/shortened version of it include George Takei (birth name Hosato), Pat Morita (b. Noriyuki), Bruce Lee (b. Lee Jun-fan), Kal Penn (b. Kalpen Suresh Modi) who obviously took his first name and turned it into two easy to pronounce names, Mindy Kaling (b. Vera Mindy Chokalingam) again taking parts of the birth name and creating something shorter, Masi Oka (b. Masayori) and Steven Yeun (b. Yuen Sang-yeop).
But when people feel forced to change their names, not for their own personal reasons but because of outside pressure such as racial discrimination, then that is wrong. Those who are proud of their ethnic names or just prefer them over anything else should not have to worry about getting turned down or not chosen for something just because their name is not a “simple old American” name as Karthick Ramakrishnan discusses in his LA Times article. Ramakrishnan has found that while East Asians tend to like giving their children European first names, South Asians usually do not and they account for more than 20% of the Asian population in America. Another good point he makes is that many white people choose strange or unusual names for themselves, yet do not face the same type of discrimination that minority groups like Asians and African Americans face.
When it comes to the workplace and education, an Asian Fortune article wrote about a study by the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business in the 2000’s. This study showed how those with white names were chosen for jobs or called back for interviews more often than those with ethnic names even when given the exact same resume. Another study mentioned was done by Wharton and found that both minorities and women were less likely to receive responses from college professors after sending them emails asking for meetings. They found that racial bias was strongly aimed at Asians with Indian and Chinese students facing significant discrimination and bias compared to Blacks and Hispanics, the other minority groups included in the study. They concluded that such discrimination is worst for Asian Americans, who according to a Gallup poll, found that 30-31% of AAPIs had employment discrimination, the most of all racial/ethnic groups while African Americans were second. Yet AAPIs only filed 2-3% of the racial employment complaints against private employers. This might be attributed to the fact that most Asian cultures are not as assertive as others when it comes to confrontations and complaints.
Another case to point to was when Texas legislator Betty Brown made comments suggesting that Asian Americans adopt names that they “could deal with more readily here”. She stated her comments were to address voter identification issues, but it is hard to see it as just that when her comments were directed specifically at Chinese Americans. Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans, said that many East Asians do have legal transliterated names along with English names for driver’s licenses and school. But demanding that all Asians just change their names for voting purposes to make it easier for others while not considering the effects it would have on the person is disrespectful of the person’s culture and heritage as well as the personal choice to have a name one wants.
The same can be said of my own mother who has an Asian name, her original and legal name, but also has had several different English names (Wendy, Layla and Lola for example) for informal use at work and with non-Chinese people. Never though would my mother ever think about legally changing her name just so it is easier for other people to pronounce or spell. Doing so would effectively be denying who she sees herself as and her cultural heritage. When it comes to something as personal as names, others should not be allowed to dictate what one calls oneself. It is perfectly okay to have a nickname and for that nickname to be whatever one wants. But when it comes to legal names or whatever name a person wants to be addressed by, that choice should be theirs alone. Racial discrimination should not hold back Asian Americans or anyone with an ethnic name.
My name is Laylita and it is my choice whether or not I change, simplify or shorten it. It should never be dictated by other people’s inability or laziness in trying to pronounce or spell it correctly. So while I may give out the name “Lita” to casual acquaintances and at Starbucks or other food establishments that ask for names (even then they always get it wrong, calling me Lisa or Liza or Leeta or Leeza or Ita or something else entirely), please remember That’s Not My Name.