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Were I a “Real American,” I would’ve ended this post “It doesn’t help matters any that they all look alike.”

April 9, 2009, 5:37 pm

Via PostBourgie, I learn that Texas State Representative Betty Brown thinks Asian-Americans should adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with.” When called out on this, a spokesperson compounded Rep. Brown’s idiocy by saying “her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes.”

Problem the first: if people vote in American elections, they’re Americans, so the notion that they ought to adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with” entails a definition of “American” that excludes “American citizens.” These citizens are Americans who “deal with” their names dandily, so Rep. Brown’s statement makes no sense on its face—unless you assume that she means to exclude certain American citizens from her definition of “American.” Had she been a little clearer, this confusion could’ve been avoided. All she needed to say is that Asian-Americans should adopt names “easier for Real Americans to deal with” and no one would’ve batted an eye at the remarks by the racist old white woman from Texas.

Problem the second: I teach at a school where more than half of the students are of East or Southeast Asian descent, and let me tell you: I have never had a class that wasn’t stuffed full of Jennifers and Jessicas. Why?

I’m not as qualified to speak to this as I would’ve been had LSU not dismantled the linguistics program my senior year (not that I’m bitter), but as I remember it, about half of the Chinese consonants fall somewhere between what native English speakers would hear as a “j,” so to native Chinese speakers “Jessica” and “Jennifer” sound more like actual names. I could expand this out to the voiceless affricative equivalent of “j,” the English “ch” sound, but suffice to say that if you think about all the different ways you can pronounce “Beijing,” you’ll see my point. So it only makes sense that the most common Chinese-American names have initial consonant sounds that resemble Chinese phonemes. (I could expand it even further and talk about more than Chinese, but the same principle applies.)

All of which is only to say that if the Asian-American community wants to make it easier for “Real Americans to deal with” them, they don’t need to simplify their names so much as make them more complex. One quarter I had three students in a class of twenty-three named “Jennifer Hu” and two named “Jessica Quan.” Not that I count as a “Real American,” mind you, but if I did I wouldn’t be advocating for less variety in Asian-American names but much more.

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