Monday, April 13, 2009

Texas-Style Xenophobia

Last week, a Texas State Representative made herself look pretty damn stupid.

From United Press International:

TERRELL, Texas, April 9 (UPI) -- A Texas legislator defended her comment that Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with."

Republican state Rep. Betty Brown of Terrell, 32 miles east of Dallas, said through a spokesman her comment was not racially motivated but was an attempt to solve problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes.

During a hearing Tuesday night, Brown responded to testimony from Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans. He had said people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent often have problems voting because their legal transliterated name is often different from their common English name used on their driver's license and on school registrations, the Houston Chronicle reported.

"Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese -- I understand it's a rather difficult language -- do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?" said Brown, whose comments were posted on YouTube Thursday.

Read On

Over the weekend, Ms. Brown rethought her comments, or at least her political future, and apologized.

While it's easy to say that Ms. Brown is an ignorant, minority view, the fact of the matter is that I'm sure there are a great deal of people who agree with her. Brown's spokesman said that 90% of Texans want a voter ID law, an idea which, to me, reaks of being anti-minority. Whether that number is correct or not remains to be seen. 90% is a very high number. But even if the number is off, I wouldn't be surprised if Brown really was speaking for her constituency in at least some sense.

America is the melting pot of the world. It has a black president. But to think that all corners of the country are progressive and colorblind is far from true.

This issue of Asians changing names hits very close to home for me. My fiancee, 耿倩, is going to be changing her name later this year after we get married. While she's pretty sure what that name will be, what she's going to go by on a daily basis is open to some debate.

耿倩 in pinyin (romanized Chinese) is Geng Qian. "Geng" is the third tone and "Qian" the fourth. Chinese family names come first and given names second. So Geng is the family name, Qian her given name.

Chinese people call her either Geng Qian, Qian, or Qian Qian. Qian Qian is a kind of cutesy nickname that friends or family call her.

I don't call her any of these things. I call her "Jackie." Jackie is the English name she chose when she was in high school. There was no particular reason why she chose that name. Just something she liked. She's not sure, but it may have had something to do with Jackie Kennedy and liking her. Jackie has never claimed to be a Jacqueline shortened to Jackie. She's just Jackie.

I met Jackie when working at an English training school. She was a Chinese English teacher and I was a foreign English teacher. In that environment, every Chinese teacher goes by their English name. No foreign teacher at that school knows any of the Chinese teachers' Chinese names. In fact, many of the Chinese teachers don't even know the other Chinese teachers' names. There's no real need to learn them.

So while I was teaching at the school, I worked with a bunch of Chinese people who I only knew by their English names: Kristy, Jane, Tiger, Doris, Bernice, and, of course, Jackie.

Seeing that my relationship with my fiancee was largely based out of the English training school environment we were involved in, I always referred to her as Jackie. I still do. In the two years we've dated, I've never made a concerted effort to stop calling her "Jackie" and to begin using her Chinese name. There just hasn't been any reason to. She fine with what I call her (I've asked) and so am I.

Being from Kansas City in middle-America, I figured that when we eventually go to America one day, she could just be Jackie. While I really like her Chinese name, we are already in the groove of using Jackie and I reckoned that it would just be easier for Americans to wrap their heads around.

Qian is actually a beautiful name. In terms of Chinese names/sounds, I think it's one of the best. To hear what it sounds like, click here. As you can see, it sounds kind of like "Chee" and "An" put into one syllable. To me, Qian sounds a lot better than some other Chinese sounds that I hear all the time. Sounds such as Dong, Wang, or Chang.

When back home this past Christmas, I had a conversation with my mom, Aunt, and female cousin. We were talking about "Jackie" when they asked me what her real name is. I told them "Qian." They all thought it sounded so great and that she should use that when she comes to America. I agreed that it is a nice name but explained that being spelled Qian, I could imagine infinite amount of mispronunciations and difficulties with the name. I wasn't sure if it would be worth the effort. The family members I was talking with, a group of relatively conservative midwestern women, all assured me that it isn't too difficult and that they loved it.

This was pretty surprising to me. I previously had thought that they'd be the type of people with the biggest problem with the name. But in fact, they gave Qian a ringing endoresement.

I told Jackie about the rousing response Qian got back home. She was pleased to hear that. She said, "Well, why don't I just use that when I go to the US?" I had no problem with this and have no problem with it now. Although I'm sure that her transition from Jackie to Qian, if she does indeed go forward with it, will be hardest for me more than anyone else seeing that she's been Jackie to me for the past two plus years.

I'm fine with going for it if it is indeed what she decides to do upon going to America.

If anyone is still reading this ridiculously long post, I'd be curious what you think about Qian Jacqueline and what name she should go by in America. Will Qian be too much trouble for Americans who have no idea the Q in Qian should sound like a CH? Will this be a lot of headaches for her? Would it be better for her to make Betty Brown proud and just be Jackie?

No matter what she does, I hope that Jackie/Qian can have as little contact with ignorant people such as Betty Brown as possible. People who think that being "Qian" as opposed to "Jackie" is somehow un-American don't seem to, in my opinion, have a very good understanding of what The United States of America really is.


Anonymous said...

Ms. Brown is just ignorant, and her comments shouldn't be given any credence. Honestly, I think her apology is sincere, but that's just my opinion.

As for Jackie's name change, I think "Qian Jacquelin" sounds fine. I know that the qi sound is pronounced "chee", and I think a lot of other people do too. Maybe I'm just mistaken though. Anyways, her name is just too simple for someone to butcher. The worst that could happen is someone calling her "Kee-an", right?

jane voodikon said...

she should do whatever she darn pleases and people can just figure it out. it's not that hard.

a friend pointed me to your blog, and as this was the first post and it resonates with me, i felt compelled to comment.

i grew up in the u.s.; my mother is from china and although when she had first arrived her high-school teacher insisted she go by "pauline," in all other situations she just used her chinese name. sure, people would mess it up, but she would correct them.

as i'm now in china i sometimes go by my chinese name so i don't have to go through the whole "how do you spell that?" when i tell a non-english-speaking person my english name; on the other hand, i don't even use the english name that was given to me by birth with other english speakers. i'm a big supporter of choosing one's own name.

anyway it's quite modern and fashionable to have an "ethnic" and exotic-sounding name these days, don't you know? i think it's pretty old-school, assimilation-minded style to go by an adopted english name these days.

Jian said...

Completely agree, Qian is actually a really beautiful name. When I came to US 10 years ago, I had the same problem when people pronounced my name "Jian" wrong. I had to correct them everytime, but I do think it's worth the effort. Otherwise they will never have chance or never bother to learn the correct way. By keep my Chinese name, I felt I kept part of my identity and gave American people chance to get used to Chinese Pinyin. I am happy about it now.

Thomas said...

Most of the Chinese people I know living in Germany (my wife included) have kept their full Chinese names without using any Western first names whatsoever.

Nobody seems to have any problems with it (except for the occasional need to explain spelling).

I think it would be a shame to drop the Chinese name. Mixing a Chinese and a Western name is already a compromise. That's as far as anyone should go, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I've never changed my name in 40 years of living in Canada. It is my legal name, in my passport, in my drivers lisense, in my graduation certificates and I've never had any problems. But I named my children Kevin and Paul. So just be comfortable with yourself(ves). Jackie Qian would sound good or Jackie Q.

Taylor O said...

Qian is pretty; I will practice the pronunciation for the arrival. I promise not to call her Jackie Chian like Anonymous above*

*(That is unless she shows some sweet martial arts moves)

Ms Brown may be tactless and wrong in her suggestion but it does point to two real problems;

1. How to indicate what one would like to be called?

2. How do we identify one correctly in such a situation?

At work, we've had similar issues with Indian names and the given and surname reverse and Americanized names. We would like to respectfully refer to everyone correctly, but it is admittedly confusing sometimes and a good intentioned inquiry may be required.

I can only imagine the issues voting or at the aiport. I have trouble with only an apostrophe!

My best advice is to keep it as consistent as possible in paperwork (IDs, business cards, Airline Accounts) whatever the choice may be to prevent confusion. Though some computer systems will end up forcing you to do it another way. It happens.

On a related note, the TSA is going to be centrally managing the No Fly List now instead of the airlines and they are starting to be sticklers for absolute exact matches on ticket versus ID. I've had first and last name switches, Ms. and a host of others even after flying week after week with the same airline so I'm not looking forward to it.

Mark said...

Thanks for all of the comments, folks.

It looks like there is popular support for Qian. This should give Qian confidence about going forward with that name in America.

I'm sure it'll be annoying at times, but as the first commenter said, being pronounced Kee-an is probably the worst thing that'll happen.

Mark said...

Taylor, your points are well-taken.

I know that the ' in O'Neal has been a pain in your ass all of your life. The digital age we live in does make that a pretty annoying thing.

I might have been a bit rough on Ms. Brown, but she made it pretty easy for me to direct anger at her for her insensitive comments. Whether she had a point or not, she picked a pretty idiotic way to make her point.

And now that I'm a China-hand, I don't have any problem with Chinese names. But the Indian names that you deal with in your IT job would definitely throw me. So I can understand where difficulty with these names would arise.

Tian Tian said...

Hey rentacar,
Although I'd never change my name from Tian Tian, it's been a real pain having this name in Australia over the last 18years.
There are so many instances where you have to produce your name and there's always some confusion when I spell it, along with the obligatory explanation as to where it came from, what the meaning is, why I have 2 of the same names.
The pronounciation of it has been so bastardised that if anyone in Australia actually pronounces it correctly, I have to correct them to say it the Australian way. In waiting rooms, I often don't even know if they've called my name because you'd think that "Tian" can't have too many variations. It can. And I'm sure that Ts are much easier to pronounce than Qs.
I seem to be the only one endorsing the usage of Jackie. I doubt that it will somehow lessen her Chinese identity.
And if u've been calling her Jackie all this time, why not stick to it?

Mark said...

Dammit, Tian Tian! A nice consensus was building before you came in here and screwed it up!

I'm just kidding, you more than anyone else would know what it's like being a Chinese person in a western country.

It's funny, both you, Tian, and a previous commenter, Jian, have commented on Qian and her situation.

That's priceless.

This is going to be a complicated decision. I'm sure that if Qian goes with Qian, it is going to be a pain in the ass.

Thanks for being playing devil's advocate in this discussion.

Anonymous said...

My name ("Geoffrey") is an old-line European one with a pretty impeccable English pedigree. It's also been routinely mispronounced and mis-spelled my entire life. I can't recall the last time someone spelled it correctly, even when I appended my traditional "Jeff, with a 'G'" introduction.

I say this to point out that having a local name is hardly proof against having to explain your name, often repeatedly. That's actually sort of liberating. I'd suggest your fiancee choose the name she actually likes the most; there's no reason people can't spend 2 minutes to learn her name. They do it for me all the time.

Vrani said...

"Over the weekend, Ms. Brown rethought her comments, or at least her political future, and apologized."


Scott said...

I agree with her, everyone should adobt a good white christian name, where is the harm in that?

Anonymous said...

I think it is easiest is to stick with the legal name on the passport and green-card because dealing with public servants is a real pain if everything isn't exactly the same.

My name, a typical anglo-saxon name but not quite common enough to be in ESL textbooks, has been mangled to death here in Japan. At first I tried, but then I realized how much time I lout out of my life and just accepted what they call me as long as it resembles my given name.

In fact the only people who get it right are immigration and the police. Due to name mangling, my electric bill is issued to a completely different name. But Tokyo Power says that it is me...oh well, as long as I have electricity.