Some of our readers may have heard about the buzz amongst the Asian-Americans that’s been headlining news, specifically in the state of Texas -- and if you haven’t, and you’re Asian-American, then you should.
In early April the Asian-American community in Texas were riled and infuriated after Texas Representative Betty Brown -- a member of the Texas House of Representatives -- made a remark on how Asian-American voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” Asian-Americans, from many parts of the country -- even New York City councilman, John C. Liu -- have angrily demanded for Brown to retract her statement and apologize for her remarks. Those who were offended by Brown’s comments, interpreted her statement in the likes of saying, “Asian-Americans aren’t American” and accused the lawmaker for being racist. However, those who have defended Brown, including herself, have argued that her statement was in no way about race; with no intention of malcontent or racial connotation against the Asian-American community; that it was simply to encourage a resolution for those who find difficulty in counting votes submitted by Asian-American voters. Even so, the Asian community in and around Texas and from the far eastern coasts of the United States, feel that her comments reflect some hidden truths to how many Americans continue to condescendingly perceive Asian-Americans as a foreign identity and not American.
The comment was brought up in a hearing between the House Elections Committee and the Organization of Chinese Americans, represented by Ramey Ko, who gave testimony against a proposed bill in the Texas Legislature that would require voters to obtain a Voter’s ID card. When the topic came up about the difficulty in transliterating Asian names, Brown quickly made the comment in question.
Before she apologized for her comments, Brown stood firmly with her remarks as she denied accusations of being a racist and continued to defend her suggestion for the name-change policy. In the end, Brown apologized for her statement but only after persistent urging from Asian-American communities both near and far.
Immigration is still a big topic and issue for the United States. For a country that has offered so much opportunity and cultural integration before the rest of the world, it has continued to show its ignorance and intolerance toward foreign nationalities and ethnicities. But what else is new? Some foreigners who have lived in the US for decades and still haven’t been naturalized, believe in the American ideals so much that they pride on it more than their own country. Their journey of hardship, struggles, obstacles and triumphs begin with the stamp of their name. Some have kept it as a way to stay connected with their homeland while others changed it as a symbol to steer away from the pains and poverty of their origins and to guide them toward the life they dream. Yet, to this day, Americans with ethnic backgrounds continue to face hardship amongst others whilst being perceived as a foreign entity without any connection to the American roots and ideals. But since the boom in immigrant settlement in the late 19th century, the American image has evolved into a blend of mixed societies.
Perhaps assimilation differs between European immigrants and Asian immigrants because of the reasons they came to this country in the first place, but this turns out to be false. European immigration goes all the way back to the settling of America and during the industrial age, is well documented. They traveled to America for a variety of reasons. Many came with the dream of prosperity, whether it was through land or a job. It was a common saying that the “streets were paved in gold” and many people actually believed this. Most came and stayed, while a small percentage returned home with the money they made. Others came to escape persecution like the pilgrims did before them, whether political, religious, or something else. Still, others came to escape the law, political turmoil, war, revolution, or natural catastrophe, many Irish being the most well known example of the latter because of the Irish Potato Famine. They nearly all have one thing in common though: they all wanted to better themselves, to cut their roots and start a new life, a fresh start, a clean slate, an opportunity. If the zero generation did not assimilate, the first generation would be much more likely to adopt the culture of the new land, because they had grown up in it, while eschewing for the most part, the ways of the “old country,” although the color barrier cannot be ignored, as Europeans could easily blend in with Americans who were largely European in origin,some Southern Europeans perhaps experiencing more difficulty with this due to their darker complexions. Europeans also have perceived superficial similarities in culture. Though first perceived as the “other,” European immigrants were gradually accepted into American society and culture, making important contributions to each.
Ellis Island’s history as a center for immigration begins at the end of the 19th century. From 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden in the Battery served as the immigration station for the state of New York. Mostly Northern and Western Europeans came to America this way. Eventually, Castle Garden could not keep up with the growing immigration, and its staff was found to be substandard. The government constructed the immigration center on Ellis Island, and it opened in 1892. Although New York Harbor was not the only port of entry for immigrants, it was the most popular. Most are familiar with immigrants having to endure a battery of exams upon entering Ellis Island, with the fear of being sent back to where they came. First-class and second-class passengers didn’t have to run the proverbial gauntlet that was Ellis Island though. They were inspected while still onboard their ships and as long as they cleared medically and legally, were free to enter the country without going to Ellis Island. Third-class passengers however, did not have this luxury. They were transported to the immigration center and if everything was in order, the inspection would last about three to five hours. “The Island of Tears” moniker, may have had more bark than bite, as only two percent of arriving immigrants were turned back, the main reasons being disease and legal reasons.
A popular story of Ellis Island is that many families had their names changed by the immigration officers upon entry due to the “complexity” or “length” of one’s name or confusion. This is even reflected in one of Hollywood’s most celebrated films, The Godfather: Part II. In the movie, we learn that Vito Corleone is actually Vito Andolini, and when he comes to America, the immigration officer at Ellis Island changes his name due to confusing the town he was from for his surname. While this may have happened, Ellis Island claims immigration officers took names from ship manifests, which would’ve been prepared in the immigrant’s country, so the errors in spelling could have occurred anywhere from when the person bought the ticket, which was usually near where they lived, to when they arrived on Ellis Island as these were handwritten at least until the advent of the typewriter. It is almost certain though that some names were indeed altered in these manners and/or due to these other circumstances.
Asian immigrants also have a long history in immigration, beginning with plantations in Hawaii during the founding of the nation for East/Southeast Asians and the Colonial era for South Asians. They mostly came from East and Southeast Asia during the industrial age and came to America for a variety of reasons as well, just as the Europeans had. The lure of Gold Mountain, which is what the Chinese referred to California as, was one of their initial attractions at first, but other opportunities came as well, and they also had factors that repelled them away. Many stayed in the U. S. despite the ill treatment they received. The same thing happened with the Japanese, who thought they could avoid the pitfalls the Chinese fell into, but they were wrong, as were the Filipinos after them and the Koreans and Indians. Each of the East Asian groups that came over had the idea they would do better than the last, only to pigeonholed in along with their predecessors. Asians, have always been seen as the “other” though, and treated unfairly. They can’t blend in with Europeans because their physical appearance is different from them; their cultures are perceived to be strange and different, as well as their diet from Europeans’. Like the Europeans though, the immigrants held onto what culture they could. Some parents sent their children to special schools where they would learn the language and culture of their ancestral lands in addition to their public education, in hopes that they would retain them, at least some of them. This is still practiced today by some. Later generations were much less likely to be sent to these schools or hold onto their culture so tightly or at all, especially due to their perceived perpetual foreignness to the majority. They wanted to be seen as American more than anything else, only to give up part of who they are and still be seen as outsiders no matter what they did, unlike the Europeans who were slowly accepted over time as they climbed the social and economic ladders. While Asians may be becoming accepted, it is happening at a much slower rate, in orders of magnitude. After World War II though, Asians came to this country from many more areas than before: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for example. Asian Americans have been in the U. S. for a long time like many of the Europeans, yet they are still not accepted as American by the general population, no matter what they do. Even Asians from Asia think American equals white today. While it seems that newer Asian immigrants to the U. S. are a bit wiser about holding onto those aspects of their cultures they cherish and their continuing perception to the majority, this could also just be a generational thing, as Asians continue to immigrate to the U. S. to this day.
When word of the California Gold Rush reached what was then called Canton (Romanized Chinese as Kwangtung) in 1848 many Chinese wagered their lives and boarded ships to the fabled Gam saan [金山] in hopes of striking it rich, with little to keep them in what is today called Gwongdong (in standard Cantonese) as the province suffered from the aftermath of their defeat in the First Opium War (1839 -1842) the then current Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864) a revolt against the Qing government, along with a variety of natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, and typhoons. This journey consisted almost entirely of men from the area known as Toisan (Mandarin – Taishan) in Gwongdong, and it is estimated over 75% of all overseas Chinese can trace their ancestry to that area. Very few women made the trek to Gold Mountain. At first, the Chinese were welcomed in California, despite only being allowed to mine old claims, tame forms of discrimination compared to what was to come. They were praised for their industriousness and agricultural knowledge, though still viewed as inferior; they were not hated. They played vital roles cultivating California’s farmland and building its infrastructure, the most famous being the Transcontinental Railroad. Many came to work on it. The team that constructed the Central Pacific branch was mostly Chinese and proved many skeptics they were very capable workers, but none of this was enough to earn the Chinese the respect they deserved. When the gold ran out, whites turned on the Chinese, even the law was not to be on their side.
The culmination of the anti-Chinese movement resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed on May 6, 1882, the act repealed the Burlingame Treaty between China and the U.S. which also encouraged immigration. The door of opportunity was shut and essentially placed under lock, key, barricade, and armed guard for Chinese Americans for ten years, only officials, teachers, students, merchants, and travelers were allowed to enter. They had to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were not laborers, which was difficult to prove. An amendment in the form of the Scott Act in 1888 banned the Chinese from leaving the country and those abroad from reentering. Exclusion was renewed for another ten years, as well as additional restrictions added. Because only Europeans could naturalize, the Chinese could not bring over their wives or families, and since interracial marriage was illegal, especially with whites, it was very hard for them to start families. The Exclusion Acts were the first major laws restricting immigration to the U. S. and the only ones ever to target a specific nationality or ethnic group. The laws brought Chinese immigration to a trickle and left them to fend for themselves, unprotected by the law.
It seemed impossible to get to America now. However, in 1906 a major earthquake struck San Francisco, which leveled much of the city, the fires afterwards completely destroying what was left. This included government buildings which held city records. As terrible as this series of events was, it has a silver lining. This provided the Chinese with a method to circumvent the law and claim citizenship since all the records were destroyed. Residents would claim they were born in the U. S. and then following trips back to China, would claim the birth of a child or two. This was not always true and called a “slot” which could be sold to boys through a broker who had no family in the U. S. Anyone who entered in this fashion is known as a "paper son,” because they literally only existed on paper, a precursor to today’s fake ID. Names could have been altered during this process, as the sponsor and immigrant could be different in name, but the immigration process was far from over for the Chinese. If anything was in question, they would be detained and interrogated to determine the veracity of their claims, often answering ridiculously detailed and mundane questions. Here are some samples:
• Have you always lived in the village you are from and are you now coming from there?
• How far and in which direction is your mother's native village from your village?
◦ Were you ever in your mother's native village?
• What were you doing in China before coming to the U.S.?
• Describe the village you’re from? (This includes drawing a diagram of the village.)
• Who occupies the house on the 2nd row from the head?
• Where do the people in you village get their drinking water?
• Describe your house in your village?
◦ Are there any windows or skylights in your house?
◦ Are there any balconies in your house?
• State the name, age, birthdate, birthplace and present whereabouts of your alleged family member(s)?
• Did your alleged family member(s) ever have any brothers or sisters?
◦ Did any of them ever married?
• What was the style of your paternal grandmother's feet?
◦ How do you know that she has released feet?
All questions were designed to reveal any inconsistencies in the person’s testimony when compared to their sponsor’s answers. Only after passing this ordeal and verification of information was the person granted entry to the country. It was later discovered that if every sponsor was a citizen, every Chinese woman in San Francisco would’ve had to had 800 boys.
Growing hostilities among other Asian Americans led to increasing restrictions until the Asian Exclusion Act. Attached to the Immigration Act of 1924, it completely prohibited the immigration of East Asians and South Asians and limited Southern and Eastern European immigration. The Exclusion laws were finally repealed in 1943, due to China being America’s ally in WWII, but tiny quotas were still in place. Reform didn’t truly come until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made these much higher and provided exceptions for family reunification.
Another establishment that dealt with immigration was the Angel Island Immigration Station, located on the US west coast in the San Francisco bay area. What is now a national historic landmark, used to be the premises -- also known as the “Guardian of the Western Gate” -- where nearly one million Asian immigrants were processed from 1910 to 1940. Many Asian immigrants who were processed at Angel Island had either involuntarily or voluntarily changed their names -- like immigrants who had done the same thing in Ellis Island -- under two circumstances; involuntary and voluntary. Those who changed their names involuntary were forced to do so by the authority of the establishment because the clerks who were processing them had difficulty understanding or failing to transliterate the individual’s foreign surname; and so an alternate name, usually American or an easily transliterated Asian name (Lee, Chan, etc.) was given. Those who had voluntarily changed their names, did so because the individual or family wanted to cut themselves from their roots, either because they wanted to start a new life without any connection with the old country, or the possibility of evading (although, the latter being unlikely).
During the time of the Exclusion Act (see below), many Chinese immigrants were forced through screenings at Angel Island’s Immigration Station before being allowed to enter the US; many of which stayed for weeks, months, and even years before passing the interrogation process. Within this time frame, many of the detainees have written out their frustrations, anger, and resentment on the walls of the barracks they were forced to live in, some in the form of poems.
There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my dailyneeds
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.
- Written by a detainee from Heungshan
Life on the island proved to be demoralizing and depressing for these immigrants who journeyed to this country for better chances. For some, despite having gone through this horrible ordeal before being granted entry into the country, the feeling of desperation and discrimination continued to sting throughout their lives. America may have been crowned the land of opportunity by many across the globe before the dawn of the 20th century but thousands who inched through Angel Island’s Immigration Station found that dignity and discrimination were a price to pay upon a knock at the door.
Japanese American history begins with Commodore Perry forcing Japan open to trade and the Meiji Restoration, a period of major social and political change in Japan soon afterwards. Farmers were forced to give up their land and many workers were left without jobs because of competition abroad, and word of opportunity in the U. S. beckoned them. After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese were sought to replace the Chinese and worked on the farms, in the mines, canneries, and on the railroads. They thought they could avoid the suffering of the Chinese. They were wrong. Like the Chinese immigrants who came before them, the Japanese population were ostracized and discriminated upon their settlement into the US. By the turn of the century, the Japanese were facing the same discrimination the Chinese did: accused of stealing jobs, immorality, and a threat to white women. Samuel Gompers an immigrant himself and founder of the American Federation of Labor, the nation’s largest union, excluded all Asians from membership. In 1908 a "Gentleman’s Agreement” was brokered by President Teddy Roosevelt in which the Japanese agreed to limit immigration, but the U. S. allowed families and relatives of residents to come over. California passed the Alien Land Law in 1913, which prevented all aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land. The Japanese found a loophole by registering land under European names or their own U. S. born children. In 1922, the Supreme Court determined issei (first-generation) Japanese Americans could not naturalize. The Immigration Act of 1924 essentially ended all Japanese immigration until 1965. Then in early 1942, the Japanese had found themselves living as suspected traitors in concentration-like camps.
Months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese empire, president Franklin D. Roosevelt feared that the Japanese community in the US contained possible supporters of the Japanese empire who may have secretly pledged allegiance to the emperor, and also feared that some may commit acts of treason against the US. In order to contain these alleged traitors, the US government enforced the Executive Order 9066, which forced the Japanese into internment within military zones well out of reach of large cities or small towns as a means to contain them from avoiding any attacks on the US body from within. Families were given 48 hours to gather what belongings they could carry and prepare for evacuation from their hometown. Many merchant families and small-business owners were forced to give up their businesses while everyone else were forced to give up their homes. More than half of the Japanese interned at these campsites were American citizens who were either naturalized or were born in the states. The living quarters at the internment camps were slum-like, where shacks and wooden houses were built weakly, within barbed-wired fences and armed sentries stationed at posts along the perimeter -- echoing the conditions in which Asian immigrants had endured while detained at Angel Island.
After the release of the Japanese from the camps, their return home was perhaps thought to have been, for some, the worse feeling after the joy of release. As families returned, expecting to find things the way they left them, many have instead found their homes either destroyed, vandalized, robbed, and owned by another family (resold or released during their relocation). Many former small-business owners faced difficulty in bringing their businesses back because of the discrimination that they faced from lenders and former customers. Other families were successful in slowly regaining what was once thought to be lost but unfortunately, others were left permanently damaged. Despite the end of the war, many non-Asian citizens continued to show their deep loathe for the Japanese-American citizens, yet, in 1948 the US Congress went ahead to help with families who were struggling to regain what they lost by offering them no more than 10 cents to every dollar that was lost during their internment.
Since the end of World War II, many Japanese families have forgiven the government after Congress apologized to those that suffered during and after the internment but the scars of the past continue to remind us how little dignity the country can show for even their own citizens based on their ethnic background, no matter if they claim their allegiance to the US.
Filipino American immigration on a large scale begins in the early 20th century. Because The Philippines was purchased as a U. S. territory at the end of the Spanish American War, they had a different status than the Chinese and Japanese that came before them.
Arguably the most well-known reason for changing one’s name is show business. In the golden age of Hollywood, performers were encouraged to change their names because they either sounded too “ethnic” (and Polish was ethnic to them back then) or because they wouldn’t fit on the marquee. This has largely dropped off today, but stage names still do exist, just not in as large numbers as they did long ago and does not just apply to sounding more American, but sounding more like a familiar ethnicity sometimes. For instance, many fans of the tv show, Heroes, will come to recognize Korean-American James Kyson Lee on the street for he plays the Japanese Ando Masahashi aka Crimson Arc, yet most won’t know that his real name is Lee Jae Hyuk. Today Lee is one of America’s talents of foreign descent -- let alone Asian -- who continue the Hollywood tradition of altering their names. Similar to actors and singers in the past, many thespians and vocalists in the limelight have adopted different names before embarking on their careers on stage. Kal Penn, Pat Morita, John Woo, even Seussue Hayakawa, a successful actor from the early 1920’s to the late 1950’s in Hollywood, whose original name was Kintaro Hayakawa. The Asian community in Hollywood weren’t the only ethnic group to have gone ahead to alter their names. Many actors with Jewish, Italian, Irish, or eastern European descent have changed their names for a suitable and presentable, easily memorable stage name that would stick with them until their death.
Jon Stewart – Jon Lebowitz
Marilyn Monroe – Norma Jean Baker
Boris Karloff (prevent family embarrassment) – William Henry Pratt
Bela Lugosi (after hometown of Lugos, Austria-Hungary) - Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó
Rodney Dangerfield -- Jacob Cohen
Whoopi Goldberg -- Caryn Elaine Johnson
Pat Morita -- Noriyuki Morita
Puff Daddy -- Sean Combs
Freddie Mercury -- Farrokh Bulsara
Zakk Wylde -- Jeffrey Phillip Wielandt
Dimebag Darrel -- Darrell Lance Abbott
Slash -- Saul Hudson
The Romanization or transliteration of Asian languages to the Latin alphabet can be quite confusing to the unfamiliar and is governed by a variety of academic standards. Here are some of the more familiar ones:
Standard Mandarin Chinese
• Missionary systems
• Hanyu Pinyin
• Revised Hepburn
• Revised Romanization of Korean
This has resulted in variations in the spelling of certain terms especially true for something as commonplace as names. Take for instance the name Lee, my family name. Lee (the one of Chinese origin) is the most common surname on the planet, by far outstripping Jones or Smith. As of 2002, there were approximately 108 million people that share this name. It is spread all over East and Southeast Asia, appearing in many languages. Because of this and the different Romanization systems governing those languages, we wind up with different spellings, depending on where that person is from, the dialect they spoke, and what time period they immigrated. The only difference between this and how the Europeans have different spellings for names or shared words is perhaps the time factor is much more influential, the possible number of variations, and in any Asian language that uses or once used Chinese characters, they all have one universal meaning that can be written down.
Spelling Variations in Romanization of 李
• Ri (N Korea)
Despite the number of variations, they are not important. What is important is that they all mean the same thing: 李 but because Western forms of writing are based on alphabets, there is no equivalent, and so you get the many variations. Pronunciation is also not as clear cut as it looks. Many letters don’t have the same sound value as in English. For instance, in Mandarin a represents “ah” like in father, and q represents “ch” as in check.
Different spellings can also indicate the time the word was introduced, a person lived in, or place of origin. Take for instance the popular dish, Peking Duck. Peking, was an early Romanization of the city of Beijing from the Wade-Giles system, but go to any sit-down Chinese restaurant, and you’ll still see “Peking Duck” on the menu, not Beijing Duck. Many words in English borrowed from Chinese reflect the Romanization used at the time it was adopted and depending on the dialect it was derived from, this could vary. Many of the words derived directly from the Chinese dialects originate from Cantonese, because of their long immigration history and the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau are located in Gwongdong.
• Dim sum
• Kung fu
The transliteration for many of these would be different today.
The Chinese in California, 1850-1925: Exclusion
Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
Paper Sons, The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
Family History, Paper Son -
Japanese, The U.S. Mainland: Growth and Resistanc
The Voyage to America, Filipino Americans.net
Romanization of Chinese
Romanization of Japanese
Asian American Dreams, Helen Zia
Coming from an Asian-American male -- let alone, a child of mixed race -- the very fact that there continues to be a condescending view on Asian-Americans today is baffling. Clearly, there is a major concern over the statement by Rep. Betty Brown but the major issue in the probability that many share her views on the matter. The United States was inhabited by settlers from all over the globe who have contributed to our country’s growth to what it is today. Recently, we have begun to see a greater influx of foreign numbers within our cities and states but it wouldn’t have been so without the first step made by immigrants many generations ago. Today we can look back on American history and see that in every chapter, is a story that involves the foreign population, yet, there continues to be a patronizing view on that whole history. To make a suggestion for Asian-Americans to change their names so that they can sound more “American” can only indicate that foreigners and children of foreigners and their children and so on -- as long as they carry the namesake of their ethnicity or speak in their ethnic tongue -- will always be cast aside as “not American enough.” But what makes one American? Isn’t it ‘American’ to be able to pursue the life and dreams of your choosing without persecution or fear? Isn’t it ‘American’ that one ethnic group can live amongst several other different ethnic groups and harmoniously coexist? Isn’t it ‘American’ for people of any race, color, language, orientation, or religion to be granted equality? There is no clear-cut image of an American through superficial means -- how one looks on the surface -- but only through the belief in the American ideals can one be understood as an American; how we embrace the constitution and our civil rights is what projects the All-American image.
So, no, Betty Brown; we will not so kindly change our names or go by an 'Americanized' alias so that you find it convenient for others like yourself to acknowledge Asian-Americans. We will not so kindly or abidingly change the history of our ancestry and lineage that lies within our names so that it would make vote-counting easier for you and others like yourself. A name is not just a label or a simple tag given to us at birth; it is the marking of who we are and where we came from. If you can't respect that then you wash away the rich Asian immigrant history of our great country.
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