Archive for April, 2012

River of Assimilation

A couple of weeks ago, Tetsuro read me part of a paper that he was going to submit for a class.  The paper was supposed to be on Youtube, but basically kind of took a bit of a detour into some of the inner workings of his mind and ended up sounding like a bitter, vitriolic rant against certain types of interracial unions that are quite common today.  While I tried to steer him back towards the original point of the paper (namely, Youtube, and that’s it) there was a section that I found particularly poignant.  In the revision, this section was lost, but I think it is important enough to be published publicly and shared with people for the greater good.

Despite the promises of Multiculturism, the fate of cultural minorities within Canada is to have our jaggedly multisyllabic ethnic identities worn smooth in the river of assimilation.

My mother’s name is Yoshiko Shigematsu, an unmistakably, unadulterated Japanese name. Her daughter’s name (my twin sister) is Hana Shigematsu, (that user-friendly familiar combination of a Western first name combined with the ethnic surname, such as Steve Chong or Jennifer Sahota), who upon marrying her French-Canadian husband, became Hana Levesque, whose daughter’s name is now Juliana Levesque. In just two generations, any legal signifiers of her Japanese heritage as now been effaced, effecitively removed from the public record. When my niece, Juliana Levesque (who is half-Japanese) introduces herself over the phone, people will assume she is white, and in a way that assumption is accurate. 

– Tetsuro Shigematsu, PhD Candidate, UBC Faculty of Education 

My Name Is . . .

And that had me thinking about the way we choose to name our children, particularly people of colour and immigrants.  My own name was Mengyao for the first few years of my life, a combination of “dream” and “distance” in Mandarin that was an homage to my father’s living in Canada at the time of my birth, scouting out a new country for my mother to eventually call home too.  Then before the age of four or five my parents decided to name me Rebecca because my white daycare workers could not pronounce “Yaoyao” in a way that I could understand.  Rebecca because my father read a Daphne Du Maurier novel by the same name in which the protagonist is haunted by the dead former wife of the man she marries (that dead woman is Rebecca, thanks Dad).   For years I wouldn’t touch my first name legally, and after a particularly stressful incident booking tickets to Costa Rica in 2008 under passport and legal names (which were different at the time) the decision was made to move to Rebecca as my first name.   Sometimes, I still ponder the greater ramifications of what I have done in the name of a bit of convenience (no pun intended).


Mengyao has more weight for me than Rebecca, but I made a choice.  In economics, we have a theory called signalling.  Signalling is all about how in situations involving two parties, party A might know more about himself than he can communicate to party B, but needs to find a way to convey this information.   In these cases, party A will jump through certain hoops.  Signalling is an important theory in used car sales (is the car a lemon or not) and in hiring individuals (is the individual’s resume accurate or not).  An example of this is when people get university degrees *points at self*.  The idea is that even though the likelihood of using the information from my degree is low, my degree itself is a signal to other strangers that I am indeed, smart.  If I didn’t have this degree, you wouldn’t know it.

And so in North America I think that people of color generally do use signalling with our first names as a way of letting those around us know how comfortable they should be with us.  If your last name is of Asian descent, then your first name can be a traditional white name (signalling that you have assimilated reasonably into the culture, thereby your more anglicized counterparts should feel comfortable inviting you to picnics, sharing office gossip or letting you be their “cool Asian friend”) or your first name can be Asian (which signals that you are still more loyal to your traditional Asian roots, and therefore your peers, culture and comfort levels should be more centred around Asian-y stuff).  When I was looking at the graduation lists a few years ago, I noticed that some Asian students would have their English name first legally, followed by an Asian middle name, or an Asian name first legally, followed by an infrequently used English name.  Implicitly, I make micro-assumptions based on which one comes first, as I’m sure most people will.

The Benefits of Having an English Name

If you have read Freakonomics, it will have you believe that with a name that sounds “ethnic”, you are significantly less likely to be called back for an interview, given the job, or basically to succeed in life.  I can see some truth to this.  I was once told that the hiring process for residence advising did happen to weed out girls with Asian first names; whether or not this was done intentionally, these girls never seemed to make the cut.

In a more depressing way, having an English name in North America determines how much society is supposed to show concern for you.  I’ll give you an example.  In the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, an American citizen, Furkan Dogan, was killed by Israeli forces with five gunshots at close range.  In 2003, an American citizen, Rachel Corrie, was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer during a human shield protest.  In terms of the publicity covering their deaths at the hands of the Israeli military, and American diplomatic involvement in each of these cases, AND in even the length of their wikipedia articles (you can find them here and here), you can see a stark contrast between the two.  I do suspect that a lot of it has to do with the “level of ethnic-ness” in their names, in the sense that something that isn’t English sounding isn’t considered American, and therefore is not of much concern.

Tetsuro once pointed out that even in the Olympics, the American coverage of Asian American athletes winning medals would sometimes diminish the magnitude of their achievements when these athletes had Asian sounding last names.  When I reflect back on this, I think Canada has much of the same problem; I didn’t know that Carol Huynh was the first gold medal winner for Canada at the Beijing Olympics until I read about her in a proposal to the National Film Board; considering we didn’t  have that many gold medalists that year, you’d think she would be profiled much more highly.

The Choice

And so this post boils down to the choice.  When you are a person of colour and your options are such that the road can be generally divided into two: choosing a name (for yourself or your children) that is Anglo-sounding and will result in better assimilation, or a name that pays homage to your cultural roots, then what is it that you do?  I know my parents eventually  bowed to pressure, and to this day they don’t regret renaming me Rebecca because they wanted me to have the best chances I could.  In other ways though, being Rebecca roughly coincided with when I stopped being Mengyao (when preschool started and I spent more and more time away from home).  The passage in the beginning of this post also makes me sad to think that entire generations of second, third generation children of immigrants, biracial children, etc, are being denied entire sections of their cultural identity.

Ultimately, I don’t have any easy answers for this.  All I can conclude is that we let our identities dictate the name that we choose for ourselves into adulthood, rather than letting our names dictate our identities.  And since none of us are so single-faceted, it’s our job to vocally advocate for the side of ourselves that isn’t represented in our first names.  It’s up to me to be self-aware of what makes me Chinese and to hold onto those things, even if I don’t sign Mengyao on all my credit card slips.

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A couple of things I learned in the month of March:

1) My high opinion of games like Scrabble have been marred by the understanding that it is less about creating lofty and impressive words out of the tiles on the board (which, I thought was the point?), and more about strategically placing J’s, Q’s and Z’s over double word tiles.  Of course after I learned this my performance shot up but my levels of happiness shot way way down. Leave it to people to play only to the rules that are given and not to a “higher calling”


2) The Canadian Penny is being phased out next year, meaning that if I stay in the restaurant industry, I will be muchos confused on how to handle cash change on bills.  Also, I learned that the biggest difference between why strippers in Canada cannot earn as much as their American counterparts is because of our currency system.  Dollar bills don’t exist here, making lapdances a necessity.  Can you imagine how a possible move to a five dollar coin would affect the industry?


3) I did not get into grad school next year, and life will go on.  Possibly the most terrifying lesson I’ve learned so far, is that regardless of how many you can get accepted into one year, things can change dramatically the next.


Everything is up in the air now . . .


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