As a kid, I felt lucky that because I was born in Spain and of the Catholic faith, I had another name, a Western name: Fermín. So, it became routine that as soon as a new teacher was about to get to my name, I would quickly say, “You can call me Fermín.” If they still struggled with pronouncing the Spanish “r” and the accent on the “i,” I would say, “Just go with Fermin (pronounced the American way).” I did not realize until a class on race and gender in college that I had been making myself smaller for the comfort of others.
When I joined the workforce, I decided that I would go by Kuan-lin. Even though I worked at an English-language newspaper, all my bylines bore my Chinese name and so did my CVs. This small detail was my way of saying that I am proud to be Asian, even though I would still find myself telling people I met in person that they can call me Fermín if they want. Most people would ask me what I prefer, but during an interview at the Hong Kong branch of an American company, something else happened.
I was meeting with a hiring manager, a middle-aged White man, to discuss potentially joining his team. Though we had previously met and corresponded via email, he did not remember my name, nor did I expect him to since it was recruitment season and he had probably met with dozens of candidates by that point. At the start of the interview, he looked down at my CV for a quick reference so he could address me. He looked up and after an attempt at my name asked, “Is there another name you go by?” Naturally, I said, “You can call me Fermín.” His response was “We’re going to have to come up with an easier name for you. How about we call you Fred?”
I am ashamed to say that I did not immediately ask to leave the meeting. Instead, I chuckled awkwardly and tried to move the conversation forward by focusing on the nature of the job. After being offered the job, I turned it down. Needless to say, I could not imagine working with someone who could not be bothered to learn my name because what he was really telling me was that he did not care about who I was as a person.
Unfortunately, this experience is not that uncommon for members of the Asian and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. We are constantly being asked to anglicize or simplify our names.
For my Indian friends, Kamran becomes Cameron, and Aran becomes Aaron. For my Hong Kong friends, they either have an English name, or they will go by the initials of their given name (i.e. Kuan-lin would be KL). And when neither option works, many Asians will opt to adopt an English name out of convenience. This is not to say that Asians and Asian Americans do not have English names that they are given at birth or that they prefer to use. In fact, many — if not most — of those born in the US probably have an English name as part of their legal name (and to ask if that is their “real name” is very othering).
With the uptick in anti-Asian violence in the US — not to mention the historical racist policies that discriminated against Asian Americans — those unfamiliar with Asian names and cultures may ask what’s wrong with changing a name, and whether a name holds any significance.
Naming a child in a Chinese or Korean household usually does not take place without at least one trip to a fortune teller and a series of long discussions with family elders. So, even if one does not believe in a name’s power, one should at least appreciate its cultural and personal significance.
Like with any group, each person of Asian descent will have a unique preference when it comes to their name. Some of us may like to go by our Asian names, while others may prefer English names or something completely different. The key to being respectful and being an ally is to ask how we would like to be addressed. When we tell you, please call us by that name.