What’s in a Name?

By Michelle Chen Apr 09, 2009

Maybe Asian people would have an easier time participating in democracy if their names weren’t so darn tricky. That was the suggestion of one Texas legislator at a hearing on a proposed voter identification law. Though supporters argue that the legislation—which would follow similar measures in Georgia and Florida—would enhance “confidence” in the voting system, and opponents say it would chase after a nonexistent problem by disenfranchising certain poor and marginalized groups, including immigrants (who, incidentally, might be more inclined to vote Democrat). State Rep. Betty Brown, Republican of Terrell, was miffed when a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans warned that some voters of Asian descent would have trouble complying with the regulations because their official name translated from their native language would differ from the name used on common identification forms, such as a driver’s license. Brown commented,

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”

Well. It’s about time officials caught on. Asian Americans have been struggling for generations to adopt new names to accommodate monolingual English-speakers. In fact, the “Americanization” of names for school registration and licenses could be seen as just that: a direct response to the inability of many native-born to grasp even the most basic phonemic elements of Chinese and other “difficult” languages.

In past eras of immigration, Chinese people Westernized their names as a practical matter, for bureaucratic procedures and to symbolize assimilation. “Dong” became “Don,” "Ma" became "Mar," “Leong” became “Leon,” etc. According to the research of Emma Woo Louie in “Chinese American Names,” the various angelicizations of Chinese surnames trace a rich history of linguistic interplay between the cultures, as well as the challenges of straddling two national identities.

The naming issue continues today, often complicated by differences in dialect, the prevalence of homonyms, and the transliteration of characters into an alphabet-based language.

Naturally, such cultural nuance was lost on California census takers in 1850, according to Woo. Hence “John Chinaman” became a common tag for immigrants who appeared otherwise anonymous by official standards.

But those simpler times don’t offer much guidance for the voter-ID controversy in Texas. What if the state’s election boards were suddenly flooded with identical registration forms for thousands of John Chinamen? Lawmakers would no doubt regret creating so many new opportunities for fraud by encouraging voters to make their names “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Image: 1879 cartoon warning about the dangers of granting Chinese the right to vote, via Creativepro. (No offense meant)