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New American life, Old World name

By Suzy Khimm

Immigrants to America may no longer be as eager to Anglicize their names upon arrival. So says the New York Times in a story today that explains why new arrivals and their children are more likely to retain names from their homeland, feeling less pressure to conform and assimilate in a more diverse society. The data pool is a bit limited and anecdotal, but the findings are still intriguing:

The New York Times examined the more than 500 applications for name changes in June at the Civil Court in New York, which has a greater foreign-born population than any other city in the United States. Only a half dozen or so of those applications appeared to be obviously intended to Anglicize or abbreviate the surnames that immigrants or their families arrived with from Latin America or Asia.…

Sociologists say the United States is simply a more multicultural country today (think the Kardashian sisters or Renée Zellweger, for instance, who decades ago might have been encouraged to Anglicize their names), and they add that blending in by changing a name is not as effective for Asians and Latin Americans who, arguably, may be more easily identified by physical characteristics than some Europeans were in the 19th century and early 20th century.

Another sociologist quoted in the story points out that it's simply a natural historical progression, pointing out how it was once de rigueur for Italians and Jews in the film industry to Anglicize their names to hide their ethnic identities. Not only is there less pressure now to conform to a homogeneous Anglo culture, outwardly diverse origins can also now be as much an asset as a liability in an increasingly globalized society. The path to becoming an American, culturally speaking, has shifted away from a monolithic norm and toward discovering and establishing one's identity as a unique, authentic individual. And the personal evolution of our own president from "Barry" to "Barack" during his own coming of age is just one example.

My own parents emigrated from South Korea to the United States in the 1960s and, in keeping with the times, adopted Anglo first names after they decided to settle in the States. But my father also decided change the spelling of his last name from "Kim" to "Khimm," effectively making it seem even more foreign and exotic. He says that he made up the spelling to distinguish himself from all of the other Korean Americans who shared his name -- a move that, in retrospect, seems borne out of a distinctly American impulse. As for me, I plan on keeping my last name, regardless of my marital status -- not only as a hat tip to my Korean heritage, but also to my family's more recent history of becoming American.

Suzy Khimm is a political reporter for the Washington bureau of Mother Jones.

By Suzy Khimm  |  August 26, 2010; 5:49 PM ET
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You mean my family gave up its badass Swedish name for boring ol' Johnson for no reason?

Posted by: nylund | August 26, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

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