Reclaiming Asian Names
I read an interesting article yesterday about Asian Americans reclaiming their native first names, giving some background into a recent Twitter trend of adding your Asian name into your display name. A common theme in the stories shared by people interviewed for the piece is having had to change their names in order to make it easier for white Americans—or, more to the point, to give white Americans fewer opportunities to exclude them. I love the idea of taking pride in Asian American culture and identity, and displaying one’s Asian name is something I can understand as empowering for people who have been othered or shamed. For me, personally, it doesn’t feel completely applicable.
One of the people interviewed for the article was Susan Kiyo Ito:
Susan Kiyo Ito from Oakland told me Kiyo is legally her middle name, despite the fact that her parents had wanted to make Kiyo her first name.
“My parents had wanted to name me Kiyo after my late aunt, but then they changed their minds and decided to make that my less visible middle name because they didn’t want me to be teased," said Ito.
Her father had a similar story about his own name.
“My father’s name was Masaji (Mas), but white people struggled with his name, so he joked that they could call him Sam — Mas backwards — to make it easier for them to remember and pronounce.”
“Many of my Japanese relatives used English names in public for assimilation and white folks,” she added.
For me, like Ito, my Japanese name (Kenji) is legally my middle name. I think of it as my Japanese name, but I have never felt comfortable going by that name. And, more to the point, no one has ever called me by that name, inside my family or out. Being gosei and biracial, my relationship to Japan and Japanese culture is very different from someone who has immigrant parents. It’s always been a lot more… tenuous? Neither of my parents have Japanese names, and neither they nor I speak Japanese. Three of my grandparents also didn’t or don’t speak Japanese (though, of those, one was my white grandfather). My Japanese American grandfather also didn’t have a Japanese name, as far as I know, though some of his siblings did.
In some ways, my relationship with my name feels similar to my relationship with identity in general. It’s not that I have ever tried to hide my Japanese-ness (nor is that something I could do even if I wanted to), and my parents didn’t pick my name for assimilation. They didn’t have to pick my name based on some idea of making it easier for me to assimilate because assimilation is something that my family already did fairly thoroughly several generations ago. I think of myself as “Mike” or “Michael” because that’s my name.
It’s not that “Kenji” isn’t also part of my name and my self. It’s just that there isn’t a conflict or separation between “Mike” and some more authentic version of me. “Mike” isn’t a mask that I’ve assumed (or that was put on me) to make “Kenji” more palatable or to make things easier for white people to understand. It’s just my name.
I think that the discourse around Asian American identity tends to very entwined with the immigrant narrative, with things like assimilation or rejection of assimilation. And there are good reasons for that. That sort of leaves someone like me out of the discussion, which used to bother me a lot. But as I’ve grown older and learned more I’ve come to understand that there are good reasons not to center my personal experience with identity in what is fundamentally a political discourse. I guess I do think that there is room for an interesting discussion about the ways Asian American identity discourse can be, I think, a bit essentialist. Or about what is or is not my “authentic” culture. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the center of the larger discourse.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I really like seeing other people put their Asian names in their profiles, or including their names written in Asian characters, and I support everyone in doing that. But I don’t think it’s something I’ll do, myself.