Texas Lawmaker Wants Asian-Americans to Change Their Names

One of the first questions I’m asked after I’m first introduced to someone new is, what does Kat stand for?  I think it’s mainly curiosity, but does your name really matter? 

Texas State Rep. Betty Brown (R)

According to the Houston Chronicle this past Tuesday, during House testimony on voter identification legislation, Texas State Rep. Betty Brown (R) caused quite a ruckus when she suggested Asian Americans change their names because they’re too difficult to pronounce.

“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?” Brown said.

What’s in a name?

At birth I was named Moon Sook Ja.  When I was adopted to America it was changed to Kimberly Ann Pfaltzgraff.  When I married it changed to Kimberly Ann Turner.  When I started a new job where two other Kim’s already worked, I started going by Kat (my initials).

Pfaltzgraff-logo

Doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see my Asian name was much easier to pronounce than Pfaltzgraff.  It’s like the dishes, not the beer (Falstaff).  You’d think Kat would be simple, but I get called Pat and Kate all the time.  

Unfortunately, Brown’s ignorant request reflects the viewpoint of many Americans, she just happened to be insensitive enough to say it out loud in a public forum.  

The problem isn’t exclusive to Asian names only.  My daughter has an Iranian friend whose name is Sahar, but she goes by Lily.  I’ve had East Indian and African friends who’ve also given themselves “American” nicknames.   

What’s in a name?  

Rep.Brown (and many other Americans) just don’t get it.  Asking other “citizens” to “dumb down” their name, is more than a pronunciation problem.  It’s insulting. 

Before this post, I’ve never willingly told anyone my Asian name.  It’s been a closely guarded secret. Until very recently, I also didn’t divulge what Kat stood for.  The reason?  Embarrassment.  When you’re trying to assimilate and fit into a culture where you’re clearly a minority, sometimes the last thing you want is to not blend in. 

What’s in a name?

My parents told me they named me Kimberly because the nickname Kim had an Asian ring to it.  I was relieved when I had a legitimate reason to switch it to Kat for that very reason, but my mom hates it. Ten years after the fact she even wrote me a letter telling me it bothered her.  It was okay for her to change it from the name given to me at birth that I held for a year.  It was okay with her when I married to change my last name.  

What’s in a name?

Identity.  Moon Sook Ja identified me as Korean.  Even though many of my adoptee friends have reverted to or incorporated their given Korean names into their American name, that is not my choice. Kimberly kept that “Koreaness” in the nickname Kim and it was what my (adopted) parents chose for me. Pfaltzgraff is my (adopted) father’s name, which reflects a German heritage.  I am proud to have come from this family, but I don’t miss the massacred mispronunciations.  I’m no longer married, but when it comes to identity, Kat Turner is who I am.  It’s the one name I truly identify with. 

Mispronunciation is often a sign of laziness.  If you actually look at Pfaltzgraff and sound it out phonetically, you should be able to get it right, or at least come very close.  The Asian names can be difficult, but I have a feeling if you make an honest effort, no one will be offended if you don’t get it right.  It’s the intent of the effort.

What’s in a name?

While Rep. Brown basically legitimized my old fear, openly revealing all my names is just one more step in being comfortable with my total identity.  I do not expect my family and friends who know me as Kim to call me Kat. However, once new people learn what Kat stands for, to call me Kim is disrespectful, as I did not introduce myself as such.  

As a high school sophomore, Lily has decided to go back to her given name, Sahar.  As someone who’s held names in two (or three) cultures (Korean, German-American), and has had both her first and last names mispronounced, the real offense is when you don’t even try to get it right.

If a name is that difficult (be it Asian or German), I suggest Rep. Brown politely ask the voter to show identification and she can compare the written name if she’s afraid her Chinese or German isn’t up to snuff.

When one takes a deeper look, the real problem may actually be in Rep. Brown’s question to Organization of Chinese Americans representative, Ramey Ko, “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”  

Someone needs to tell the Representative from Texas, everyone who votes in this country, is American.

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4 thoughts on “Texas Lawmaker Wants Asian-Americans to Change Their Names

  1. I never knew KAT wasn’t your name, but your initials!! That lawmaker is a moron…think she’s been to too many cheap nail salons where people named “Candy” and “Lisa” wait on her hand and foot… literally!!

  2. Betty Brown belongs to those ignorant times where the world revolved around white America and anglicizing everything out of fear of discrimination was a part of the “grand” tradition in becoming American – forget family history and ties to your heritage! Someone needs to tell her immigrants no longer come through Ellis Island and to read some Friedman. If you were to ask a citizen of this planet if Brown or a random Chinese name was easier to recognize/pronounce, Brown would lose seeing as China has the dominant world population. And I bet it would be better sounding too.

  3. Kat… You and I have have had a number of conversations in this realm, and I agree. Being named “Emerson Burch” and being half Asian has been an interesting experience for me. As a child, it was a point of ridicule. As an adult, I get the continuous, “Emerson isn’t Asian!” — and that’s if they take enough time to read my name correctly and figure out that Burch is NOT my first name.

    I see myself as having both Asian and mixed-European descent. I also see myself as an American… despite having traveled a good deal overseas and living overseas(and learning the embarrassment of being called an American). One thing I appreciate about the “intent” of the United States is that this place is a melting pot — a place for the Asian, American, White, Black, Anglo, Indian (Native or sub-continental) or whatever name/association you have.

    It’s a simple matter of respect to spend the time to care enough to respect others’ heritage, identity, or just their choice of name. And really, are we so unintelligent or unlearned to, as you suggest, use our phonics a bit and try to pronounce someone else’s name? Sheesh.

  4. Kat, this was a wonderful post! Thank you!
    I myself am fascinated by names–not surprisingly, as a transracial Asian adoptee. While my own name–Mark Hagland–constantly throws people off and compels me to “explain myself” over and over (and OVER!) to people, I am also in the position some other adoptees are in, in that I don’t relate to my Korean name at all. For one thing (and this gets into a long, complicated story), I’m not sure my Korean name was ever really an actual name; and it has certainly never been used in my life, beyond my first few months of life. So I’ll forever be explaining myself, and that’s OK. But for a state lawmaker to be so ignorant as to actually ask people with “difficult foreign names” to change them, is truly insulting. How would she like it if someone told her to change her name, because they couldn’t pronounce it???! I totally respect anyone’s choice to adopt a “nickname” if they move to a different country and want to make things easier for themselves and others. But I also totally respect anyone who wants to maintain the integrity of their name, if that is their choice. The United States is becoming ever more culturally diverse, but Ms. Brown seems stuck in the 1950s, when if your name wasn’t Robert or Ann, you were far too “exotic.” Let’s all liberate our minds and rise up and embrace the true strength of our country–its amazing cultural and personal diversity. Not everyone needs to be named Betty Brown! Nor should they be!! C’mon, people!
    –Mark

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