asian american name puzzle

Q: Why are east Asian Americans (Chinese/Koreans) are more willing to adopt Western names than central Asians (e.g., Indians)?

Don’t you dare fall back on “culture” unless you can really lay out the mechanism.

Written by fabiorojas

September 13, 2011 at 12:28 am

29 Responses

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  1. I don’t really see why Indian names would need a “western” alternative.
    After all, English is an official national language of India, and (with the possible exception of some remote tribal areas) Indian names have English alphabet spellings and pronunciations without any additional tonal requirements. That, compared with the sounds and tones in East Asian names that are often difficult for people raised on romance or germanic languages to both hear and produce.
    Maybe I’m showing my own cultural biases. ;)

    As a side note, my family is from the Southern US (SC & GA). There, the name “Brian” is a one-syllable word, sounding like “Brine.” Whenever I introduced myself pronouncing my name as a two-syllable “BRY-an,” the southern listener almost invariably hears “Byron” (the closest 2 syllable equivalent in Southern).



    September 13, 2011 at 12:46 am

  2. 1) Because east Asian names tend to follow a surname, given name pattern. If you’re Asian and arrive in North America, you’re already being called by your family name, which is a bit weird and probably weakens your concern about preserving your correct name.
    2) Because east Asian languages tend to be tonal, meaning that small errors in pronunciation mangle the intelligibility of the name in a way that’s not found in central Asian languages.



    September 13, 2011 at 1:39 am

  3. @bork: A lot of the reasons in that article apply to Indians as well. Indian names must be hard to say and there is a lot of pressure to be Western. Why so few Indians named Fred?



    September 13, 2011 at 1:55 am

  4. I cannot for the life of me think of a theory that I don’t shred in the next second. Prof. Rojas, you’ve found yourself a research project!



    September 13, 2011 at 2:20 am

  5. Allow me to suggest “cultural inertia.”

    India is a huge place with a long and complex recorded history. Korea is just a peninsula off Manchuria. Also, although India was deeply influenced by the British occupation, the US military impacted South Korea far more.

    In addition, Westernization is a powerful influence. (It cuts both ways: no one practices Zen Buddhism like Americans.) The father of a high school friend from Taiwan was named “Wellington.” Maybe he had a Chinese name, but “Wellington” was his preferred choice. By the same token, my father’s father was Christened “Giuseppi” but called himself as we called him, “Joe.” On my street, the Ukrainian kids, Jaroslav and Vladimir were “Jerry” and “Wally.”

    One day, my uncle came over to watch a football game (wife and three daughters at home) and Grandma asked him in Hungarian if he wanted something to eat. “Jesus Christ, Mom!” he replied. “You’ve been in America 50 years. Speak English.” From my father’s side, if we had spaghetti or pizza it was because they were American foods.

    I am not sure about bork’s theory on the last-name/first-name thing. My mother’s family was Hungarian: family name comes first in the Asian manner. But no one refers to Szilard Leo or Von Neumann John or Bartok Bela.

    So, that all explains the westernization, perhaps. Why Deepak Chandra and Dinesh D’Souza are not Dave Chandra and Dilbert D’Souza is one of life’s mysteries. Like the Pleiades in a telescope, you just admire them as they are.


    Michael Marotta

    September 13, 2011 at 2:20 am

  6. I am from Hong Kong. Many people here adopt an English name as a nickname (without giving up the original name in formal documents). I haven’t made one for myself, but the reason many people choose to adopt one may include:

    1. Many foreign English teachers ask students to have an English-style name(sometimes called Christian name). Maybe they find the direct translation difficult to pronounce, or there may be cultural conquering mindset in it. Some local English teachers follow this practice, and think it is nicer to foreigner to have one.

    2. It is still a bit weird to call the first names of others directly for Chinese. Chinese first names are less likely to be identical, thus it is quite personal. But for English first names, many people share the same name (Peter, John, Eric, etc), so we may feel less personal and less infridgement of privacy to call the English name than the original chinese one.

    Of course, I am not sure about deeper cultural reasons.



    September 13, 2011 at 2:38 am

  7. Long wondered about this very phenomenon. A few possibilities I’ve come up with:

    1- Chinese have been in the US much longer than Indians. Longer time to acculturate to American names. Even though there are new immigrants constantly coming from East Asia, these new immigrants acculturate to those Chinese Americans already in the US, taking on American names.

    2- Religion. Indian names are closely tied to religion. Indians who have Western names (I’m thinking of those I know “Judy George” and “Lisa Justin” and “Joseph Elias”) are Christian (Catholic or Church of South India, the major protestant church in India), and even in India Christians often have Western names names. Likewise, there are Hindu names (Shivani, Seema, Kshittaj), Sikh names (Jasdeep, Manpreet, Navneet), and Muslim names (Rabia, Sania, Zarin). For non-Christian Indians, switching to an “American” name is actually switching to a Christian name, thus tying up more in the name than simply language/culture (adding in religion). In contrast, more East Asian immigrants (both Chinese and South Korean) are actually Christian, and among those who aren’t there isn’t the same ethno-religious overtones associated with Western names.



    September 13, 2011 at 2:39 am

  8. Maybe originally Christianity is a factor, but I think nowadays people are not that aware of such connection. Indeed some English names in Hong Kong are quite Japanese-style, such as Sukie.



    September 13, 2011 at 2:42 am

  9. The “its too hard to pronounce” rationale has been used to anglicize Italian and Polish names in the past as well, but not anymore.

    My 1st year Chinese professor once told us that it was a tradition in China to adopt a new first name at each new stage in life (new school, new job, etc), kind of like a nickname specific to the organization you’re embedded in, but more institutionalized and more as a replacement to the old first name. I’m not sure how widespread and/or outdated that is/was, but even a historic and lingering cultural emphasis on identity as organizationally specific could explain the difference.

    The legacy of British colonialism (as gov record keepers, top of the economic food chain, BBC newsgivers, etc) is surely also important. The only sociologists from China I’ve known who use an Anglo name (past their first year in the US) are from Hong Kong.


    I was a terrible Chinese student

    September 13, 2011 at 2:59 am

  10. Since when is India in Central Asia?


    what now?

    September 13, 2011 at 3:10 am

  11. My bad. All I meant was “non East Asia.”



    September 13, 2011 at 4:55 am

  12. Weren’t the first English schools in East Asia run by missionaries? Could they have encouraged adoption of an English name as a form of westernization/modernization? And for some reason it lives on to the present day?

    This is more of an empirical question than a theory.



    September 13, 2011 at 5:34 am

  13. Lemonjello and Orangejello.



    September 13, 2011 at 9:37 am

  14. Like


    September 13, 2011 at 11:35 am

  15. It may be due to some pre-socialization to western naming through Christian Missions (I wonder also about plurinomination, the cohabitation of an Asian forename and a Western forename, in European enclaves in China). [And you will find “Western” forenames in Goa, in India]
    Forenames are also very diverse in China (much more than patronymic names) : embrassing Western forenames may be a continuation of variety…


    Baptiste C.

    September 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm

  16. Indian forenames are good indicator of the sex : they have a gender that English speakers can understand. (Akhar, Aalap, Akshay… vs Adrija, Adhira, Anjana…).
    Whereas Corean or Chinese forenames do not seem to be as-easily-gendered by English speakers : Sae-lon, Bae, Min, Joo-Eun…)


    Baptiste C.

    September 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm

  17. Jiayin Zhang, Elena Obukhova, and I have a paper that relates to this issue. Actually, the focus of the paper is on Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century but we have a separate paper on naming in China, so we have thought about this issue.
    (Another interesting parallel to the one below, is that unlike in most European languages [such as those analyzed by Lieberson and are the basis for his claim that exogenous factors in naming fashion are limited], the meaning of Chinese and Hebrew names is very salient to the users of those names).

    Not to take away from the various factors that were mentioned, but we think that a key factor is that for Jews, Chinese, and Koreans, it is possible to have two names, one in the alphabet and culture of their ethnicity/religion, and one for interacting with the general culture. In fact, this is the norm for Jews. Almost all Western Jews have two names, one in Hebrew (or Yiddish) and one in the Western language. The Hebrew name is used for religious purposes, and is the primary name for honoring ancestors. The Western name is sometimes the same (e.g., if it’s a name from the Hebrew Bible, like Benjamin or Jonathan or… Ezra), and sometimes is just a name with the same first letter. But there are no restrictions, and this freed up Jews to acculturate in naming as much as they liked (the Zhang et al paper is about why they, like other immigrant groups, chose formerly popular names from the host culture). When it comes to Chinese immigrants, I am unaware of systematic evidence but I think we are all aware of Chinese and Koreans who adopt a second name. It may not be the norm to do so, but it certainly is possible.

    As for Indians, what Brian suggests makes sense to me. And I wonder if the issue of enunciation helps explain why it seems like Japanese are more likely to use Japanese names than Chinese or Koreans.



    September 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm

  18. Indians are usually referred to as “south asians”. Most of the “stans” other than Pakistan are considered “central asian”.


    Wonks Anonymous

    September 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm

  19. I’m with passerby. In a lot of English classes in China (and most students take English now), students are asked to come up with an English name. This name is also used when talking to native English speakers in China. I ran into a few “Dragons,” for example. Peter Hessler talks about this in his book, River Town. For India, English is learned without the belief that you need to change your name, probably due to the much more invasive colonialism and imposition of the language in India than China. China has Chinese names and English names. India just has names that are spoken in English as well as Hindi, etc.



    September 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  20. FWIW, Jhumpa Lahiri’s besteller The Namesake speaks to the issue among Indian immigrants to the U.S. It also suggests that there is double-naming going on.



    September 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm

  21. It might be about qualification and differentiation. First, people from one ethnically homogeneous culture usually have a hard time telling people apart who are from another homogeneous culture. Now, if the names of these people are also difficult to remember because they all sound very similar due to the fact that they are monosyllabic and therefore tend to have less variety and provide less opportunities for mnemonic devices, then there is a problem on both sides. Eventually both sides are pressed for a solution and an English name can resolve the tension (by providing an additional qualifier). So the Chinese, Korean etc. person can help make other people remember them better (differentiation) and it’s done in a polite way, by not making the Westerner feel stupid or awkward about not recognising them or remembering them (that might be some kind of a Confucian thing about creating harmony and avoiding losing face etc.).

    Not being recognised and remembered can stand in the way of one’s success in life (as people will avoid interacting with you if they keep forgetting your name or confusing you with someone else), so it may make people in this situation more inclined to go along with this solution. (Westerners do this themselves when they try to wear different style of glasses or other accessories to stand out and be remembered or if they are in a class where there are 4 people with the same first name. This is what nicknames are for). As South Asians (Indians etc.) have more Western-looking facial features, there is less of a problem of not being recognised and remembered, and the names usually have several syllables, so they provide more opportunities for mnemonics and differentiation. The same might be true for the Japanese and Thai, as their names are usually not monosyllabic. Having to choose an English name in the English class in Taiwan or Korea is already the institutionalised form of offering a solution to this cultural problem that the local teachers already know that it is likely to arise later in life (or immediately, if the English teacher is a Westerner and for example has 50 Chinese students in what is supposed to be a conversation class – a situation I had to face myself as an English teacher in Taiwan). Lesson 1: everybody choose an English name…



    September 13, 2011 at 11:19 pm

  22. Not to take away from the various factors that were mentioned, but we think that a key factor is that for Jews, Chinese, and Koreans, it is possible to have two names, one in the alphabet and culture of their ethnicity/religion, and one for interacting with the general culture

    To the extent that I understand Chinese family naming conventions – and my personal experience relates only to to the Chinese (Taiwanese) side of my family – a person can be referred to by multiple “names” depending on their relation to the speaker, or the existence of any additional nicknames. It’s of course common for people in the English-speaking countries to use variations on “mom” “dad” “grandmother” “grandfather” and so on, instead of first names, but on the Chinese side of my family, this is applied to extended family (by blood and by marriage) and the names we use can include things like birth order. So my mom’s “second sister” (i.e. the second born daughter in her generation) is my “second aunt” and so on with all aunts and uncles. My sister calls me “little brother”, but I use part of her Chinese name instead of saying “sister” (and I’ve been told you don’t say “big sister” unless you have more than one sister); our parents refer to us by diminutives based on our Chinese names (which are our middle names, legally). There are some in-family nicknames (not everyone can use the same ones), but we generally don’t use first names except when outside of the family context. Everyone has fairly common English first names for these purposes. I’m not sure how these names relate to the legal system; I know my grandparents never changed theirs, but my mom changed hers. It can sometimes get confusing. And this doesn’t even get into the use of Chinese names in Chinese-speaking contexts.

    I have no idea about naming practices outside of East Asia, but I could plausibly see how growing up with this kind of naming fluidity would lead one to be more open to adopting English names for situations in which it seems appropriate. On the other hand, it sounds like some of my more distant cousins, who did not emigrate to the US in the 1960s and 1970s, but have studied in Canada and the US in more recent years, have not adopted English names. Whether this means they plan to go back or what, I don’t know. Anyway, all I’ve got are anecdotes.



    September 14, 2011 at 12:05 am

  23. Some data points:
    (1) Most of us Anglophones do not pronounce non-English Western names properly in the non-English language, we Anglicize them. And we certainly do not pronounce them with the correct accent. So keeping your “real” name in any non-English language involves being willing to have it mangled by the locals. My name is an English name that is also a Spanish name and Spanish-speakers give it the Spanish pronunciation when they meet me. But if it is all the same alphabet you have some feeling that you are pronouncing “the same” name.

    (2) I know some Western scholars to do research and writing in China. They have adopted “Chinese” names that they publish under in China and I assume that they use in interactions with others in China. There are also a number of historical figures, westerners who became part of China and are known in China by their Chinese names, which sound nothing like their western names. I also know a Dutch scholar who has simplified his Dutch name for publication in English. Many English-speakers modify their names when living overseas in a country where their name cannot be properly pronounced by the locals. That is, it’s a two-way street.

    (3) I have been in a number of conversations with Chinese people who have said “that is not Chinese” when I have attempted to pronounce the “simple” two-syllable version of a person’s name. It has been my impression that the mangling of tonal Chinese names by us English-speakers contributes to the motivation to switch. Most Chinese names as written in western script are easily pronounced in English — they just don’t sound Chinese.

    (4) One of my former students (Korean) adopted an English name because she realized people were avoiding addressing her–or, in some cases, avoiding her–because they did not know how to say her name right. She decided she wanted to remove that social barrier. This would not be a matter of whether Anglophones can pronounce your name correctly but of whether they think they can, I guess.



    September 14, 2011 at 12:56 am

  24. Great question, and some interesting hypotheses. Here’s one nobody has suggested:

    In South Asia, South Asians lived with the British presence for generations, first under company rule and then under the British Raj. During this time, South Asians didn’t take British names, because the two groups remained so obviously separate and there was little expectation of assimilation or integration. When South Asians began immigrating in substantial numbers to the US in the later part of the 20th century, their decisions about what to name their kids born in the US (and about whether to give themselves Anglicized nicknames/new names) were shaped by the long cultural history of South Asians and British folks living in the same country without name-changing. Having spent their lives in a context where there were whites and Indians but not much name-changing, name-changing didn’t seem like an important part of joining the US.

    Conversely, East Asian immigrants didn’t bring the same recent long history of Western colonial occupation, and weren’t accustomed to a society where East Asian and Western names co-existed, so perhaps they were more likely to see name-changing as a natural part of assimilation.


    Raj Ghoshal

    September 14, 2011 at 1:38 am

  25. I tend to agree to the observation that those who stay in the western world for some time tend not to use an English name. One possibility is that they see people from non-English speaking countries also simply use their original name. We can always have a short form of our original first name which is easy to pronounce as a nickname.

    Changing first name in different stage of life is not a common practice in China now.

    What Andrew mentioned in the second paragraph, I think, is that there is a more differentiated name for relatives, rather than having different first names.



    September 14, 2011 at 1:39 am

  26. Stan and I are working on the global diffusion of first names with another co-author (but we don’t have China in our sample, or the ability to link first and last names in the U.S.)- email me if you are interested in more details.


    Chris Bail

    September 14, 2011 at 3:10 pm

  27. Interesting responses. As an Indian, I believe the most important reason is that Indian culture is not monolithic and has always consisted of many languages, beliefs and cultures co-existing as equals (at least since independence).

    This is quite unlike the US, China or even Europe, where there is one clearly dominant race / language / culture and all others expected to be subservient (to it) and adapt themselves to the extent possible.

    Therefore, the idea that the immigrant should change his/her name would seem natural to the Westerner the Chinese; it sounds very odd to Indians.


    Indic scholar

    September 16, 2011 at 11:34 am

  28. I remember reading somewhere that contemporary Indian culture is far more selective in its adoption of foreign influences than China. The author of the text – which I cannot find at this moment – suggested this as a reason for the slower growth of franchises like McDonalds in India. Maybe this has something to do with it.



    September 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm

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