Honoring Ethnic Names is an Important Way to Celebrate Diversity of Families in America
My family emigrated to the U.S. when I was 9 years old, and we immediately took on Anglicized names. The choice wasn’t really ours to make. If we wanted to thrive in our new lives, we needed “American” names.
As a child immigrant struggling to fit into a new culture and to learn a new language, I appreciated that my first name was not yet another part of me that caused me to stick out. As a young naturalized citizen, however, I experimented with reclaiming my Chinese name. What I discovered was that after many formative years as Michelle Yang, the name and the Asian American identity it represented was no longer a negotiable part of who I am.
For parents with immigrant roots, the process of choosing a name is complex. Most parents take pride in their cultural heritage and want to pass that on to their children but are also aware of the social and professional biases those with unusual or difficult-to-pronounce names will have to endure. Parents’ own experiences living in the U.S. with non-English names can also deeply influence their choices. Here, seven immigrant families share how they navigated the nuances of choosing culturally apt names for their children.
“If you don't honor your own heritage, how will others?”
Jayron Finan, 42, of Newcastle, Washington, was born to immigrant parents from Iran, and her husband’s family is of Irish heritage. “Although I was born here, my parents gave me a Persian name. As a little kid, I didn't want to be different so for a while I begged my parents to call me Stephanie. That was mostly a joke in the house and didn't get much further than that, but it does show my desire to fit in. As an adult, I like the fact that no one else I know has my name.
[My husband and I] decided that we would take turns picking names from our heritage for our children. Our firstborn, Padraig, was given an Irish name before he was born, and interestingly, he does not look one bit Irish. He had dark brown eyes, olive skin, and brown hair. Our second son, also named before he was born, was given a Persian name, Ryca. He was born with fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair! I think that's a wonderful coincidence. Because of their names, they will each remember the part of their heritage which is not apparent by their appearance. By the time we had our third son, we just let his brother pick his name and it's neither Persian nor Irish, it's an old English name, Keaton.”
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“In middle school, a coach gave me the name Maggie, saying Magdalena was too hard to say.”
Magdalena Loucks, 36, from Stamford, Connecticut, emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. at age 6. “In middle school, a coach gave me the name Maggie, saying Magdalena was too hard to say. I asked him not to call me that, but he carried on and my teammates (and then classmates) began to use it. I did not think then that I could challenge an adult beyond politely asking a couple of times, so eventually, I started calling myself Maggie,” she says.
Magdalena would be 21 years old before she was able to shed the Anglicized nickname she never wanted. Her childhood experience weighed heavily in choosing a name for her son.
“My husband’s family has Italian heritage, so we considered Italian names, Spanish-language names, and Anglo names,” she says. “We were primarily interested in sound and spelling. We wanted to choose a name that both our families could pronounce.”
After much deliberation, the couple chose an English first name and a Spanish family middle name. “While I wanted to honor my grandfather, I hesitated to make our son's first name Ignacio for fear that it would be mispronounced or, worse, that my son could potentially be negatively impacted by bias later in life.”
“My Chinese name is not legally part of my name but is something I like having.”
Lauren Hall-Lew, 40, from Edinburgh, Scotland, is an American ex-pat of Chinese and German heritage. Her husband is a second-generation Ghanaian American from his maternal side. “When I was born my given name was Asia, and then my mom changed it to Lauren because she thought I would get teased. Asia has connotations of sweetness, love, and the warm feelings of early childhood, so I sometimes wish I was still named Asia. The name Lauren doesn't hold any emotion for me whatsoever. Asia is now officially my middle name. My Chinese name, Ah Ping, is not legally part of my name but is something I like having. My husband's Ghanaian name is one of his two middle names, so it's the same for both of our kids who have first names tied to their birth country or birth parents. We gave both them Ghanaian middle names and they also have informal Chinese names. It’s part of our training as adoptive parents to expect names to carry more importance for our kids than the average person and it is the reason why we wanted to offer our children options for what they would want to be called as they mature,” she says.
“I really don't want my son to inherit any internalized racism or white gaze.”
Sam Yang, from Los Angeles, California, and his wife are both Korean Americans. “I don't want to abandon my culture because you never really abandon your culture and go into a cipher,” he says. “You’re just dropping one culture and replacing it with another, which in the U.S. is a white Western culture. So it was very important for my wife and [me] not to do that, especially as Asian Americans.
I don't want to make white Western culture and how my son or how we fit into that default be the barometer for our existence. And I really don't want my son to inherit any internalized racism or white gaze.”
“We wanted a name that was universal—working well in multiple languages.”
Keren G. Raz, 37, from New York City, is a new mom whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Raz says she and her husband wanted a name that was universal, working well in multiple languages, especially Hebrew and Japanese. “We didn't want our child to require a different Hebrew name, and my husband wanted a connection to Japan where his dad’s family is from,” she says. “It was a bonus that the name also connects him to Hawaii because my husband's family came to the U.S. via Hawaii. We also wanted a gender-neutral name to counter [any] future bias based on name. Finally, it would be a name our child could be happy with regardless of gender identity in the future.”
“I tried to pick a name which I felt was a good balance between the ethnic identity and easy to say in both cultures and societies.”
Hemangi Parab, 43, Kirkland, Washington, and her husband are both immigrants from India. “In the past, [others] have suggested that I adopt an American name to make life easier for myself. This change would be to make life easier for others who do not want the hassle to learn a new different-sounding name rich in its cultural depth,” she says. “Instead, I feel folks need to explore more into any new names they hear and understand their origins and meanings. It can be a great icebreaker and also a really simple way to be curious about our neighbors and to get to know them better.”
She says her own name was challenging to say in both cultures, and that guided her decision in picking a name for her child. “I tried to pick a name which I felt was a good balance between the ethnic identity and easy to say in both cultures and societies.”
“Norwegian names are already relatively mainstream and accepted. That is a white privilege my family and I have clearly benefited from.”
Liv Aannestad, 40, from Phoenix, Arizona, born to Norwegian immigrants, is a single parent of two girls. “Norwegian names are already relatively mainstream and accepted. It’s not the same as names from many cultures, which some will take as so different that they use them to discriminate or judge,” she says. “That is a white privilege my family and I have clearly benefited from. Nevertheless, my first name (pronounced Leev) is mispronounced all the time, and I often don’t bother to correct the speaker.”
Aannestad says she had a really hard time picking names for both of her children. “I wanted names with clear Norwegian roots but that were also equally pronounceable in Norwegian and English. I did this both for cultural connection and also in case they ever choose to live in Norway,” she says.
Choosing a name is not something parents take lightly. Names are intensely personal and fundamental to children’s identity. Parents with immigrant roots don’t take that for granted. Honoring these decisions is important, and as a societal rule, learning the preferred names of others shows respect for the amount of thought and the person behind the name.