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8.26.2010

fewer immigrants are changing their names

This is an interesting New York Times article on the traditional immigrant practice of adopting new names that sound "more American," perhaps to speed assimilation, deter discrimination or even just be more marketable. These days, the practice is much less common: New Life in America No Longer Means a New Name.

I'm sure everyone knows someone who's adopted some sort of new identity in America, just to make a little easier. Guo Wi becomes Ryan, Jaehong becomes James, Hyunhee becomes Heidi. But it's apparently happening a lot less now, because there isn't as much pressure to blend in and assimilate:
"If you are talking about 1910, the social forces on conformity were much stronger," said Marian Smith, senior historian of the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, "whereas now an immigrant arrives with all these legal and identity documents, a driver's license in their pocket, a passport, with one name on it. To change this is a big deal."

Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton University sociologist, suggested that newcomers from overseas and their children no longer felt pressure to change their surnames beginning "during the 1970s and 1980s, as immigration became more a part of American life and the civil rights movement legitimated in-group pride as something to be cultivated."
Also, let's face it, for some people, changing your name isn't necessarily going to make more or less conspicuous -- an Asian person is still physically identifiable as Asian. I found this part pretty interesting:
Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said: "Jews and Italians changed their surnames in the past so that people wouldn't identify them as Jews or Italians, the famous cases of course being movie stars. But if you look, phenotypically, nonwhite — East Asian, for example, or black - changing your last name is not going to make a difference. Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall, and most people didn't know she was Jewish; whatever name she used, Lena Horne was black."
Of course, there will always be folks like former Texas state Rep. Betty Brown, who suggested that Asian Americans might want to adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with.". I am also reminded of this awesome British comedy sketch. Check it out.