First generation immigrants changed their ethnic names to gain access, but experts say the continuing trend in younger generations is indicative of fractured identities.

By LYNDA LIN, Pacific Citizen Assistant Editor


In the movie “Goldmember” it’s all about the scene when Austin Powers meets nubile Asian twin girls named, “Fook Yu” and “Fook Mi,” and delightfully banter about their names — names which take on new meaning when translated into English. The name joke was a hit with the film’s audience but also touches on the pulse of an evolving trend among real-life Asian Pacific Americans and their self-consciousness over poorly translated names.

Hollywood has always had a love affair with funny Asian names. Remember Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles”? But there’s a deeper meaning behind the laughter for generations of APAs who have had to correct pronunciations when answering to their delicate names rolling off of foreign tongues.

When 26-year-old Cathlyn Huynh watched the scene with the “Fook” sisters, she laughed along with many others, even adding that she knew someone in junior high named “Phuc” which actually means “luck” in Vietnamese.

Even though Huynh admits she didn’t have it quite as bad as her former classmate, her given name “Ngan” (pronounced non), inspired many quizzical looks and pauses. She was called everything from “nun” to “non-fat.”

“In school when the teacher was doing role call, there would always be a pause and that’s how I knew to answer. I guess you could say I answered to silence!” said Huynh with a laugh.

Like many APAs past and present, when Huynh became a citizen she decided to change her name to sound more euphonious, and more importantly, more American. She said she chose the name Cathlyn because it was original and more feminine than Ngan, which in its original language connotes the beauty of the moon.

In fact, her entire family changed their names either with official government papers or by simply renaming themselves — Quyen became Justin, Thanh changed to Shannon and Phung turned to Michelle. It was just the thing to do, she said.

For APAs that are second generation and on, growing up in America isn’t so different from their immigrant predecessors’ experiences. Sometimes it means a new name for a new identity, but many still believe a name carries the burden of a fractured identity.

For some it’s easy to reconcile. Levan Luong has gone by Lisa almost all her life. When it was time for her to start school, her parents said she needed an American name and picked one out. There were no issues.

However, Albert Shimabukuro says he understands the complex and sometimes self-conscious nature of a name. In the 1970s, his father tried to change his name from Takemasa to Ted “purely for assimilation,” but the name didn’t stick and just faded to memory. His father’s feelings of social awkwardness passed on to Albert who says he never took on his Japanese name, Takeshi, because having a complex last name was difficult enough.

Similarly, Arao Ota’s Army buddies at the Monterey Bay Fort Ord Infantry called him “Art” because his Japanese name was too difficult to pronounce. From then on he juggled two identities, using his American name when talking business and his given name on all official documents. And when it came time, Ota gave all four of his children traditional Japanese first names and American middle names.

The history of anti-immigration laws, exclusion acts and internment, have all contributed to the tenuous APA identity, researchers say. The “paper name” phenomenon in the late 19th century contributed to mass name changes when immigrants literally bought the birth certificates of those exempt from exclusion of citizenship, namely students and diplomats.

“Depending on the family, everybody knew that you had a real name and a paper name,” said Erica Gee, director of education at the Angel Island Immigration Foundation.

Stories of customs agents at both Angel Island and Ellis Island renaming immigrants upon entry into the country have become legend, which experts agree largely happened because of language barriers or the Asian tradition to give their last name first.

Sam Jew’s father arrived in San Francisco from China in the 1950s and declared that his family name was Jue, but a customs agent spelled it out the only way he knew how.

Since the first waves of immigrants changed their names as a way to enter the country, are younger generations that followed carrying on the tendency because their identities are still being called into question?

For the most part, changing your name is increasingly popular because it makes it easier for other people to pronounce and it provides opportunity to better assimilate, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in New York.

Elaine Kim, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley sees a different pattern in the naming phenomenon. Immigrant parents used to pick out patriotic names for their children — like Jefferson and Lincoln — but these days she sees a return to cultural roots. Parents are naming their children “pure” Asian names that sound more Western. For example, the Korean name Soo Jin is currently very popular and sounds like Sue Jean.

Immigrants are also more conscious when it comes to names and their unintentional English connotations, said Kim. Although she personally knows someone named “Fuk Yu” and “Won Suk,” she said these inconveniences are becoming few and far between.

“’Fuk’ is actually a very pretty Korean name. It mean ‘virtue’ … can you imagine?” said Kim laughing.

But even those who experienced butchered pronunciations and teasing because of their names said they would still give their children Asian names.

Sam Jew didn’t always understand the irony of his last name and why people teased him, but he never thought about changing it even for his sons. He jokes that the combination of his last name and his Chinese ethnicity makes him a very savvy businessman.

“It builds character. People can laugh at my name, but not at me and all of my accomplishments,” he said.

Shimabukuro said he has learned to embrace his melodious name now and he intends to give his future children both Japanese and American names.

“I encourage those who have unique names to accept and honor them,” he said. “Don’t just throw it away. That breaks down all culture and identity to the past.”


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This article originally appeared in Pacific Citizen (PC), the national newspaper published by the Japanese American Citizens League, and appears here by special permission.  Please do not reproduce with seeking permission from the copyright holder.

Established in 1929, the PC covers news and events in the Japanese American and larger Asian Pacific American communities. For more information about PC‘s history, features, new web site, or subscriptions, see the IMDiversity Pacific Citizen Profile, or visit is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.