The delicate grounds of the “other”

Before criticizing a newcomer to the country for adopting an English nickname… Imagine at the airport, the attendant called out your name on the loudspeaker for the Nth time without you even realizing that it is you because their pronunciation is so off.

In a previous post I recorded one of the many dialogues that I had with my daughter. Representation, identity, voice, and inclusion are delicate matters. There is usually no single way to fathom or approach one situation.

Sometimes Asian women are also grouped into brunettes and many people don’t even think that people from India are from Asia, too. It is as though only East Asians are considered Asians. To me, it really depends on where the heart comes from. Some people use “brunettes” for East Asian women to include us. I myself genuinely appreciate the inclusion. However, in certain contexts this can also be a way to muffle our voice, in which case I respectfully disagree — we need to have our distinct voice heard as a race, instead of being blended into invisibility.

People may not realize until they really draw on their knowledge of geography to realize that India is part of Asia and therefore, Asians should include people from India. While I’m OK with our unawareness of geography, I’m less OK with the notion that we East Asians look so different and therefore considered “typical Asians” who are even more foreign to “American-ness,” especially when we ARE Americans, just like everybody else.

When I was in graduate school, I had two friends who are a couple. The woman is East Asian and the man, European Caucasian. They were often told by others that they should apply for citizenship. The man were told that he would be “an American,” whereas the woman was told that she would be “Asian American.” She was very frustrated with those people adding the “Asian” in front of the “American,” as she felt singled out and never seen as fully legitimate, included, or accepted. Yet, within the Asian American community, we identify with this term and use it on a daily basis. When we are referred to as a community by mainstream press or in official documents, many (if not most) of us welcome this more generic term of “Asian Americans” more than singling our subgroup out. All of these shades of subtlety are so context dependent that it’s definitely a delicate ground to tread.

Then there is also the issue of English names. Second generation immigrants from East Asia usually have regular English first names given at birth, together with a middle name that reflects their language and culture of origin. First generation immigrants, on the other hand, use as their legal name their first name given by their parents when they were born outside of the U.S. They may adopt English nicknames for daily use or later on to become middle names in their legal documents. To us, it’s more for the sake of practicality. Before criticizing a newcomer to the country for adopting an English nickname… Imagine at the airport, the attendant called out your name on the loudspeaker for the Nth time without you even realizing that it is you because their pronunciation is so off. I’ve actually been asked to and helped the attendants read out their names on the loudspeaker (bless their heart for caring so much to find someone to help)! It’s really just normal, if they’ve been living here forever or if they discovered that nobody could say their name, that they adopt an English nickname.

A couple of my most well-meaning professors even made the mistake of commenting that they should “honor their culture and only use their original name.” Others who believe that their adopting an English nickname is a result of cultural emperialism (which may or may not be the case for a specific individual) and harshly criticized them. Worse still, some would show contempt to someone from China who has an English nickname with a comment that they should stay with their own cultural identity, while compliment a person from other parts of (East) Asia that his/her English nickname is “beautiful.” Some of these newcomers, even when they have pretty good English, may not be sociolinguistically prepared to call out racism/discrimination.

The truth is, a lot of these are just personal preference based on practicality and convenience. There surely are people who would like to become more American in America, like “when you’re in Rome, do what the Roman’s do.” On a societal and social level, there surely are various aspects of more profound reasons, including cultural emperialism. But, we also need to always remember that it is not that individual’s fault. An indiviudal should be accepted, included, and respected just like old-timers, just like everyone else. From the newcomer’s perspective, people being judgmental to individuals and tell them they should keep using their home language name when they would like otherwise, is a sign of non-acceptance and exclusion.

As we fight agaisnt cultural emperialism caused by history and imposed by the system — yes, it indeed has permeate all aspects of our lives; however — we should be aware that we are NOT fighting againt the individual. We, no matter who “we” are and which group we belong to, should always treat the individual with compassion, understanding, respect, and dignity. It is already so hard to be the “other.” The world with many of the “other” in it needs gentle embraces instead of harsh lashes. When we embrace the “other,” we can have a bigger “we.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s