Changing your name legally is a way of getting noticed and standing out. Much like how people get a facelift to look more attractive and get better jobs, people are changing their names and identity to fit in, get a job and access opportunities in life.
With the internship season having just passed, I recall conversations from my friends who told me that they hated their names because it gave away too much about their race and ethnicity. One of my friends from high school approached me and asked, “Hey you do law, how do you fill in paper work for getting your name changed? I want to maximise my chances of getting an internship with a corporate firm.”
She was dead serious about getting her name legally changed. She explained to me that she was ashamed that she had an ‘Asian-sounding’ name. She said that she was afraid that recruiters would assume that she didn’t speak English or was an international student, needing extra help in securing a working visa.
She is, in fact, an artistic commerce student who was born and raised in Sydney and has a strong interest in literature. Yet she was afraid of writing down her Chinese name on job applications.
And myself? I have been ashamed of having an Asian last name for as long as I can remember. I was bullied in primary school for simply having a Chinese name. I was the token “Asian girl.” I would sit in class and fantasize. If I had the chance to change my last name, what would it be and how would it sound?
I met up with a consultant recently, I confessed to her that I was afraid of putting my true name to some of my pieces and I would rather go by a pen name. I admitted that I felt judged, does anyone take the artistic works of an Asian female seriously? Well, I’m inclined to believe that they don’t. Nor do I feel that my opinions would be valued. Instead, I feel disempowered, oppressed and dismissed. I think of J.K Rowling as a classic example. Why not tell the world that it’s really Joanne Rowling? Well, I can tell you. It’s because no one will read something that a woman wrote. And an ethnic woman? That’s even more unlikely.
I discussed to the consultant that there was a growing trend in people from all walks of life changing their names for the sake of a better life. We concluded that students were doing some radical things to get a “leg up” in the competitive corporate field. She admitted that it wasn’t uncommon for students from diverse backgrounds to have their name legally changed for the sake of looking better on job applications. It was all about “getting a foot in the door” or looking good enough on paper to get through to the interview round.
This trend isn’t limited to students. There are people within the workforce who have over time, shortened their last names and taken on an English sounding name to save everyone the hassle of mispronouncing or misspelling their names.
I am always left wondering, why are we, people of colour made to feel ashamed of our names? They tell us who we are and where we are from mostly. Behind every name is a great story of family history that makes you who you are today. Getting rid of it and donning an Anglo-Saxon sounding name is essentially a form of rejection of one’s heritage, but why should we reject who we are? Why are we always made to feel as though we are outsiders? And is changing your name going to make that much of a difference in your life? As tempting as it is to say “no,” I am inclined to believe that it does. I have filled in endless internship applications and I am convinced there is something darker going on behind the scenes, with questions asking me to identify my heritage, because you know, my name doesn’t give it away already.
Each and every time, I put my full name on paper; I feel I am being judged solely by my name and nothing else. Even the smallest of tasks like writing a cover letter for my assignment or putting my name to a model I built at work, I still feel that I am being judged, for my name simply tells everyone that I’m Asian.
Illustration by Joanna Chen.