Texas Liberal

All People Matter

Thoughts On Texas Legislator Who Suggested Asian-Americans Change Names

Republican Texas State Representative Betty Brown of Terrell has said Asian-Americans in Texas should change their names to something more easy to pronounce and understand. 

This issue has been written about by other Texas progressive bloggers and I’d planned to ignore it. It’s just so dumb and predictable from a Republican member of the malignancy known as the Texas legislature.  Blogging about it had a shooting fish in a barrel quality. 

But my friend Diane in Maryland asked that I write a post about the issue and I don’t like to disappoint the blog reading public. I guess what’s expected in Texas is not how things go in Maryland.

Representative Brown’s comments reminded me of my elementary school and middle school years in Providence, Rhode Island. This was in the 1970’s.

My last name is spelled A-Q-U-I-N-O.  It is pronounced  “A-queen-o.” It’s Italian and I’m pretty certain that people of Italian descent are the largest single ethnic group in Rhode Island. In any case, many Rhode Islanders are Italian.

At the beginning of each school year, at least a few of my new teachers would trip over my last name and ask me what kind of name it was.  While I did go to school on a side of town in Providence that had fewer Italians than other parts of the city, we were at the same time electing in Providence a Mayor named Buddy Cianci.

In the years since I left the Providence schools, I’ve looked back and wondered how these teachers could not figure out my name when I was part of the state’s largest ethnic group. Had the teachers been living on a boat out on the Atlantic and just sailed in for classes each day? Did they not grasp that they were in Providence, Rhode Island?  

Texas is one of four states in the nation with a majority-minority population. (California, New Mexico and Hawaii are the other three.) How could Ms. Brown have missed this fact? Though, more likely, what she is trying to do is wish that fact away.

There’s often a presumption by some that they are the true Americans and that others are somehow alien. Expressions of this presumption can be based on a kind of benign ignorance such as what I got from my teachers in Providence, or they can take a more malignant form when expressed in an insulting way by an elected official.  

In any case, no matter how long America draws immigrants from all over the world, this kind of thing still goes on. Sometimes it’s best ignored. Other times you have to speak out. The good news is that we have a President named Barack Obama and a younger generation that seems more open to all of America’s diversity.

The Betty Browns of Texas and these United States will never fully go away, but even they may realize, or may have already realized, that their numbers are dwindling.

April 11, 2009 - Posted by | Politics, Texas | , , , , ,


  1. Speaking about “real” Americans. Boy, I can tell you many stories.

    I always gets asked “where are you from?” I reply, Houston.
    “Oh.” Pause. “But where are you *really* from?”


    Then they smile, satisfied upon hearing the correct answer.

    Comment by Saleema | April 12, 2009

  2. Many here think that a Rhode Islander is as alien as someone from Pakistan.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | April 12, 2009

  3. Throw that Texan into the well after Tikki Tikki Tembo and Texas style, ‘drive friendly’ away.
    Pretend she offered a real apology, and pray there’s only one of her.

    Comment by The First Carol | April 12, 2009

  4. I’m afraid she is not the only one in Texas.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | April 13, 2009

  5. (This post is close to identical to one I’ve made at another blog–my apologies if a near-repost is inappropriate.)

    I’m a native-born Vietnamese-American (admittedly only half, though raised by my immigrant mother), and I think Ms. Brown’s getting a bad rap (mainly because I think her meaning is being misinterpreted). Were she suggesting that Asian immigrants adopt Anglicized names, I’d reject such a suggestion unreservedly. But that’s not what she suggested, and went out of her way to say so: “I’m not talking about changing your name–I’m talking about transliteration…”. She made this clear during the hearing and subsequently.

    Some Chinese-Americans experienced challenges at the polling stations because the namnes on their IDs did not match the names on their naturalization papers. Ms. Brown was simply suggesting that names/transliterations be consistent from document to document, not that they should be anglicized.

    The inconsistencies were generally due to one of two things:

    a) The most common issue was, ironically enough, that it was the adopted americanized names on voters’ documents (driver’s license, for example) which didn’t match their naturalization papers. For example, a Vietnamese person might be naturalized as Hoai Nguyen, but have Bobby Wynn on his Driver’s license. In such a case, Ms. Brown’s proposed solution would be to use his Vietnamese, not americanized name on his driver’s license.

    b) Some people choose to transliterate their names differently on various documents. For example, someone’s naturalized name might be Yi Seung-man, but he may transliterate it Syngnman Rhee on one document, and Singman Ri on another. All three are equivalent transliterations of the same name.

    Ms. Brown made it clear she was not suggesting that Chinese voters change their true Chinese name–just that that they alter how they transliterate it when it’s inconsistent with the transliteration on another document.

    Regarding her statement, “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”: she was referring to the linguistic knowledge pollworkers would need to discern, for example, that Yi Seung-man and Syngman Rhee represented the same name (this is actually a Korean name, but the point stands). She was not suggesting that Syngman choose a less ching-chongy name.

    She asked Mr. Ko, “do you have any suggestion for us, something that would help the Chinese community, that would be easier on you?”, and it was he who then asked her to address the challenges presented by nominal inconsistencies at polling stations. Watching the video, I found Ms. Brown perfectly reasonable, even if I ultimately believe there’s a better solution. She wasn’t argumentative or on some tirade–she was civil and courteous, addressing an issue at Mr. Ko’s request.

    Certainly one is free to disagree with this suggestion as well, but we should at least understand what it is with which we’re disagreeing. Anti-Asian bigotry and xenophobia, both subtle and not-so-subtle, are alive and well in the U.S., but reactionary strawman-punching only undermines the helpful sympathies we’d like to create.

    Comment by Chả giò Joe | April 13, 2009

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