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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 came to the United States from South Korea about 40 years ago and, in keeping with the times, adopted Western 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 Jennifer Abella  |  August 26, 2010; 5:49 PM ET
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Was it common at all for Armenian immigrants to change their surnames? (e.g., Khardashian) My impression is that Armenians are especially proud of their national/cultural heritage.

Last paragraph of the Times story is funny:

Even these days, finding precisely the right adoptive name — one syllable or not — can be a problem. Not long ago, David M. Glauberman, a Manhattan public relations executive, grew tired of having to spell his name every time he left a telephone message. Instead, he legally changed his name to Grant. The first time he left a message, a secretary asked: “Is that Grand with a ‘d’ or Grant with a ‘t’?”

Posted by: bdballard | August 26, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

No one comes to America these days as family unless you can make it illegally there by slipping through Mexican borders. Can any one point me to any immigration means where whole family can just move from Beijing to Boston?..mainly immigrants who make it to America these days are either coming to work as an individual in some company through H1B/L1B or coming to study in some American university and thereby taking job after ward..and in these cases person still has his family in his home he is still very much associated with his home will be awkward to change name is this given the fact that many of these people mainly coming from developing countries might have great incentive to move back to their home countries in near future and take up opportunity there...point is ..that these days no one simply pulls out from his home country and simply move to changing name does not make sense to me . Plus why should one change his name because some provincial guy there in state cant spell it? World in 21st century is going to be lot different as we move further into it..America is no longer a shining city on the hill, USA is still gonna be ok economically..its not suddenly turn into a poor country and most likely it will never be.

Posted by: amritpalsidhu | August 27, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

i only got to this article on friday morning, but i really enjoyed reading it.
there is much to think about in keeping, shedding or changing a we see ourselves, how our culture sees us.
it really is a fascinating topic, to spend time thinking about.
thanks for casting a light on it.

Posted by: jkaren | August 27, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

In the days of mass immigration from non-English-speaking Europe, I think it was pretty common for people with strange-sounding names to be *assigned* one, de facto, by the harassed civil servant who was processing them at Ellis Island. He'd replace phonemes that English doesn't use with something more familiar to the ear, and spelled phonetically.

This was the origin of my family name, or so I was told.

Posted by: wankme | August 27, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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