Fewer immigrants take on American names as more embrace birth names

By Mary Glen Hatcher

The night before seven-year-old Lufan Huang left China, she stuffed a small backpack with her sweater, some playing cards, a few snacks and a dictionary of English names.

She needed to choose a new identity. 

With her mother by her side, she pored over the book on the plane, tracking each syllable with a tiny finger.

Elizabeth, she thought, might be nice – after all the blonde, blue-eyed girls she’d seen on TV.

“No,” her mother hesitated. “You’ll be like everyone else in America.”

Her mother suggested Jessica, but Lufan wanted something a bit edgier, more androgynous. She wanted to be cool.

So on a chilly, November morning in 2004, Jessie Huang walked off the plane into New York City.

Finding a new you

The practice of adopting a new name is not foreign to American immigrants.

For centuries, people have immigrated to the United States for a fresh start. A vast majority of them come to find new jobs that lead to better lives and more opportunities for their families.

But starting a new life is tough, and starting a new life in America as a non-English speaking minority is tougher. For many, choosing a westernized name is a head start – if you can assimilate quickly, you can deter suspicion and possibly some discrimination.

Your transition in this new country might be a little easier.

“My parents weren’t of the educated class, so for us, coming into a new country, we tried really hard to hide ourselves and not be as noticed,” Jessie Huang, now a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said.

“Knowing now what it would have been like if I hadn’t chosen an American name, seeing other people get teased, I think it was a form of survival. I think, even then, my parents knew it was a form of survival,” Jessie said. 

Accommodating peers

For others, the choice to take an American name might come out of embarrassment or under the small burden of feeling pressure to accommodate others.

Irene Zhou, also a senior at UNC, emigrated from China with her family when she was less than a year old. She remembers being overwhelmingly flustered in grade school when teachers and peers couldn’t pronounce her legal name, Si Yang.

“As a kid, you feel like everything is a bigger deal than it is, but it really did feel like the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Irene said.

A shy girl by nature, Irene was uncomfortable with confronting people or speaking up to correct their pronunciation. “I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t want this to happen again,’ and it was bound to happen again unless I did something.”

She would later steal the name Irene from a girl in her third-grade art class. It’s been with her ever since.

Embracing origins

But the trend that has imprinted itself on the lives, name tags and coffee cups of first- and second-generation immigrants across the country might be disappearing.

According to a 2010 New York Times report, the number of formal immigration name changes has been declining over the past few decades.

Some researchers cite the decrease as evidence the United States is becoming a more multicultural society. Other explanations point to the complexity involved with changing multiple official documents or that the motivations to change one’s name – blending in, assimilating with American culture – are not as potent as they once were.

For Hoi Ning Ngai, whose family left Hong Kong for Brooklyn in 1978, having an additional American name never really stuck for her, but she doesn’t regret not having one. After several failed attempts to become a Nancy, a Victoria and a Samantha during her childhood, Hoi Ning decided to embrace her birth name.

“I felt most places I was the minority,” Hoi Ning said. “So if I’m already in that category, what’s the difference if I’m a bit more of a minority in terms of the name?”

While she admits her choice has left her frustrated at times, Hoi Ning said keeping her name has allowed her to reflect on the opportunities it provides for bridging cultural understanding.

“I think the name itself does open the door for conversation in some ways,” Hoi Ning said. “It’s been a nice turn for me to acknowledge whatever awkwardness there is surrounding me being different and turn it into an opportunity to educate on the meaning and background. I feel like that’s given me a little more control over the situation.”

Finding individualism in heritage 

A new generation of Asian-Americans might also agree.

A few years ago, after their parents gained U.S. citizenship, both Jessie and Irene had the opportunity to legalize their American names.

Both decided against it.

Irene said her decision was inspired by her parents, who chose not to take English names when they immigrated.

“They always told me I should never change myself to make others’ lives easier – it’s not an accommodation that anyone should have to make,” Irene said.

“I think throughout the years as I’ve become closer to my Chinese heritage, as opposed to trying to fit in to the American community, my English name Irene has lost meaning, and my sense of individualism has gotten stronger,” Irene said.

Although both of Jessie’s parents legally changed their names, she felt confident in her decision to keep hers, especially after immersing herself in a supportive Asian-American community at UNC.

“I’ve always felt a really strong tie to my name, so I didn’t want to legally erase it,” Jessie said.

“Even though I’m applying to jobs right now, and printing out my name on a resume can feel foreign, I still would never want to change it. It’s like this silent reminder to myself of where I came from.”

Edited by Sara Hall