It is an expectation that immigrants should assimilate into the culture and society of the country of which they wish to be part. This assimilation process involves becoming a contributing member of the society, adopting beliefs held by the society, speaking the native language and also changing names to one that fits within the new society. For many decades, name changing remained an important practice for immigrants in the United States.
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However, is it practical to change one’s original name to fit in the American culture? Does name changing bring with it any economic, social or political advantages? An article titled “Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings” by Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman argues that name change can give a person an economic edge and hence improve his economic position. This article intends to concur with the argument that name changing can actually give an immigrant a great advantage as compared to retaining of the original ethnic names.
Arguments for Tracing
Name changing can be traced as far back as the 18th Century. Immigrants changed their names after arrival for their own, benefits. A good example is Charles Steinweg who had emigrated from Germany as a piano maker. He changed his name to Charles Steinway. Tom Lee is another immigrant who successfully changed his name from Wong Ah Ling. He was later appointed unofficial mayor for Chinatown in Manhattan.
The reasons behind each decision for name change vary for each individual. However, the end of the whole process leads to a positive reason (Roberts 23). Given the factors surrounding the phenomenon of name changing, it is advisable that immigrants into the United States of America adopt this for their own good. The real question, however, is why should they change their names? Would this impact on their cultural disposition?
To begin with, those advocating for retaining of original names base their argument on the fact that changed names lead to problems in tracing. It is necessary that one finds a belonging where he can have time and association with other people sharing his culture. This would help in maintaining and sustaining the culture of the country of origin within the country of residence. Furthermore, tracing helps in statistical purposes for the government.
In addition, they argue that changing names is a hectic activity that requires too much time and money and yet one could retain his name and proudly belong to his ethnicity. During the 80’s and 70’s, civil rights movements legitimized ethnical groups and further campaigned for in-group pride. This ensured that most immigrants felt proud of their ethnic backgrounds. For instance, it requires US$210 to acquire a name change from a State Supreme Court or US$ 65 to have your name changed from a Civil Court. In New York alone, there were more than 500 requests for name change in June 2010 alone.
Serving such a big number of people is time consuming. A person requesting for name change will thus waste too much time that would have otherwise been used for other constructive ventures (Roberts 24). This has also been one of their arguments. They purport that enduring all this when one can easily cope with life given that immigrants arrive nowadays fully loaded with documents showing their legal presence plus their identity documents including driver’s license and passport is just but a waste of time and money. In addition, they argue that name changing offers very little for some ethnicities especially those from East Asia and Latinos. Regardless of the name, one would easily identify their roots.
Considering the positions above, the arguments given for retaining original names do not actually carry too much weight. Failing to develop an American identity through name changing and studying English language could lead to negative economic impacts. Although some people might argue that America is a multicultural society, the truth remains that there is only one dominant culture that could be referred to as ‘Americanism.’ Though many immigrants might have the desire to keep their original cultural identities, pressure from the dominant American culture forces them to develop another identity which would help them blend in the American dominant culture (Van Sack par. 5).
This also includes learning of English language that is deemed the language of business. The immigrants are thus forced into the culture by attending English classes which go hand in hand with acquiring English names that would be used in school or other formal settings. With English as the language of business, changing one’s name to a more Americanized one increases a person’s chances of doubling his salary. Immigrants’ salaries are lower as compared to what other workers would earn for a similar job. Thus, paying a onetime US$ 210 cannot compare with a doubled salary for the rest of one’s working period.
The dominant American culture tends to self impose an assumption of superiority over other ethnic cultures. Interviews with immigrants point out that some names actually work negatively during interviews. For instance, names from Europe which are characterized by too many consonants and very few vowels actually leed to problems during job search and interview. Someone with an American name would thus seem superior to his counterpart with an ethnic identity. As a result, the one bearing the American name would more likely land a job as compared to his counterpart with ethnic identity. This forces such immigrants to simplify their names into anglicized ones to increase their chances of landing better jobs (US Citizenship and Immigration Services).
It is also important to change one’s name in order to tap into the economic benefits associated with the dominant culture. American culture is considered superior and cool thus everything about it is superior and cool. This includes names and language. The piano maker Steinweg considered that changing his name from the German Steinweg to English Steinway would increase his sales (Arai and Skogman 46). Many people during that era believed that English instruments were superior and had better quality than any other.
Every ethnicity within the US has a country of origin. Having an ethnic name thus carries with it an assumption of foreignness within an individual (Roberts 23). An ethnic name would mean that one belongs to a different culture which in most cases would be considered inferior. At school, one would be viewed as a foreigner and thus a person who left his land to bring competition. Every human being yearns for a belonging.
Staying as a foreigner denies someone that feeling of confidence and rightful ownership. This is what an ethnic name does in America. As a result, it is necessary that parents change names for their children to make them blend in the American society. Although the children might be Americans by birth and have stayed all their lives in America, having an ethnic name would make them feel foreigners for the rest of their lives.
Some people would be traumatized if they felt that their names were wrongly spelt or pronounced. Name changing then becomes the remedy for trauma associated with this (Van Sack par. 7). In some cases, naughty classmates would deliberately mispronounce an ethnic name to make fun of the bearer of the name. While this might seem like fun to other class members, it is a traumatizing experience to the child.
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This might implicate negatively on her class performance thus her future career (US Citizenship and Immigration Services 25). For instance, one Chinese American friend of mine born and brought up in America confessed that she had to change her name at 18 from Ying Ying Shang to Eva Shang. This, she said was as a result of that feeling of foreignness as many people looked at her questioningly every time she introduced herself. In addition, she was fed up with deliberate or accidental mispronunciation of her name. Instead of calling her Ying Ying, some of her naughty classmates had deliberately called her things like ‘ping pong.’ This greatly affected her leading to her name change at age 18.
Finally, changing a name with which one has no emotional attachment might not have great negative impact. Unlike Americans, the Chinese do not name their children after parents or grandparents. The names are crafted to suite the parent’s needs. It is therefore easy for Chinese Americans to change their names and adopt American ones for easy blending into the culture. However, one can retain the second Chinese name to ensure that he retains the dual identity.
In conclusion, name changing is an important practice that should be encouraged among the immigrants into the US. This helps them grow economically and socially. This is most important considering that the American culture is considered superior and cool. Blending in it would mean acquiring a name and learning the language. This would give one an economic edge. Changing of names would increase a person’s chances of doubling his salary and at the same time landing a better job.
Socially, ethnic names deny people that feeling of belonging. Despite being born and brought up in America, they continuously fail to master the confidence required of a native. Furthermore, some names offer platforms for fun which impacts negatively on the students. Despite the fact that America is a multicultural society, name changing still remains a prerequisite for better chances of survival.
Arai, Mahmood and Peter Skogman. “Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings.” Journal of Labor Economics 27.1 (2009): no page. Web.
Roberts, Sam. “New Life in US No Longer Means New Name.” New York Times. 2010 late ed. :Al. Print.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Immigrant Name Change. 2013. Web.
Van Sack, Jessica. “Name swap suits Sam Yoon: Politician Americanized name.” Boston Herald. 2009. Web.