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Should Asian-Americans adopt “easier” names? by mattsteinglass
April 10, 2009, 10:35 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In response to the story of a Texas Republican legislator calling for Asian-Americans to adopt “easier” names, Matthew Yglesias writes:

it seems to me that people of Chinese ancestry tend to have very “easy” names as things stand—lots of monosyllables and so forth.

It’s true that Asian-American names tend to be short; I think the problem comes with standardization issues. Vietnamese-Americans, for example, have still not arrived at any standardized way to handle the order of family and given names, which must either be reversed when one moves from Vietnamese to American traditions or…not. In Vietnam, a man named Nguyen Hong Phuc has the family name “Nguyen” and the given name “Hong Phuc”; contrary to the Western tradition, he would be referred to with his given names, as Phuc and Mr. Phuc, rather than his family name. (This is in part because a large majority of Vietnamese have one of I think seven major clan names — if you called somebody “Mr. Nguyen” no one would know who you were talking about.) When Nguyen Hong Phuc immigrates to America, he may reverse his names, becoming Phuc Hong Nguyen, so his kids end up being named Emily and Jack Nguyen. Or he may keep the name order the same, and his kids end up as Emily and Jack Phuc. Or he may decide to take an American name like “Frank”, and then he’ll be referred to as Phuc Hong “Frank” Nguyen. And when he’s referred to within the Vietnamese community, or in, say, newspaper articles, he’s still going to be referred to with the Vietnamese name. And because Vietnamese last names can usually be first names as well — Nguyen, Huong, Pham, etc. — there’s really no way to know whether this guy is actually named Nguyen Hong Phuc or Phuc Hong Nguyen. Sometimes it gets so screwed up that someone could wind up writing it as Hong Phuc Nguyen.

And then in Jiverly Wong’s case, you had an immigrant parent who “Americanized” his rare name (apparently Nung minority, not ethnic-majority Vietnamese) as Wong, when the normal spelling in Vietnam would be Voong. This led his son, who seems to have major identity issues, to go back to using “Voong” in some circumstances so people would know how to pronounce the name he was born with. And I have the same word-order problems with Japanese in the US; I’m never sure whether someone is named Edo Takiyashi or Takiyashi Edo.

All of this may just be the inevitable result of America’s completely decentralized attitude towards names, which is in general praiseworthy. In the past it’s been resolved within a generation or two of US residence, at which point all the Lincolns no longer remember or care that they used to be Lichtmans. (They were probably Lurias before that and Levis before that, anyway.) Though these days, with families tending to straddle the globe more rather than assimilate completely to their new countries, the name problem may persist longer.

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[…] Interessanter Blogeintrag über vietnamesische (oder generell asiatische) Namen in den USA. (KLingt jetzt wesentlich […]

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Jiverly Voong is likely of what is known as ‘Chinese Nung’ descent. Essentially they’re Chinese people who were living in a province on the border with Vietnam. When the French reorganised the borders, those people fell under Vietnamese jurisdiction.

They’re classified separately to the majority of ethnic Chinese there, which causes some confusion as they’re often not classed as a Chinese people. Additionally, them sharing the name of their ethnic group (‘Nung’ in Cantonese means ‘farmer’. The story goes that, the French asked them who they were, they answered ‘Nung’ as it was their occupation) with a group of Tai-speaking people causes confusion as well.

This group of Chinese speakers transliterated their names to Vietnamese, according to their language. So, instead of having the transliteration of their Chinese surname that is used by the majority in Vietnam (‘Vuong’), Jiverly Wong’s surname was written as ‘Voong’ or ‘Vong’ among the people of that province. I guess he changed it to ‘Wong’ because it was indeed easier, and it reflected his surname as it would have been when his family were within Chinese borders.

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