What’s in a Name?

IMG_0362.jpgYou’ve probably noticed that many of our international students often from China change their names when they come to the U.S. and choose English names.  Students have told me that they do this because English speakers cannot pronounce their names (and they are so tired of hearing their names butchered).  The names they choose may at times be odd or somewhat dated.  I had a student last quarter called Never, which was short for Never Give Up.  I had a male student who wanted to be called Kitty, which was short for his very long Thai name.  There are two students named Grace this quarter, one student named Howard, and another named Abner.  I once had a student, whose name was Ausensio.  The following quarter he was Ace, and by the third quarter, he was back to being Ausensio.  People create identities with these new names.  They may keep them or discard them as easily as they had adopted them.  But they seem like free choices.  And yet things might be changing.

Over winter break, I bought a new car.  The salesman who sold me the car was called Moe.  I first thought that The Three Stooges’ names might be coming back in style with more Larrys and Curlys in the wings.  I soon realized that Moe might be short for Mohammed, given my salesman’s last name.  During the second week of class, I had another Moe add my class.  His name is also Mohammed.  This got me thinking of the Italian family I knew when I was a kid who had changed their name from Corelli to Parker, thinking that they would beat discrimination with an American-sounding name.  Or I was reminded of the change in name of Berlin Street to Brussels Street in San Francisco during the First World War.  At that time, German-American families could no longer name their children Gretchen or Hans for fear that they would be considered the enemy.

And so, are we now again at a time when people feel they have to hide who they are because there is so much mass hysteria in our society?  I have had up to now many students named Mohammed but only one Moe.  Is this a change?  What must it be like to be Mohammed or Hanan in the U.S. right now?  Do they see themselves viewed as the enemy in the U.S.?  In adopting this nickname, I think my student (and my car salesman) were doing this out of fear.  Maybe they were tired of constantly having to look over their shoulders at the prospect that perhaps they would be watched if anyone found out their real names. 

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