Thursday, April 9, 2009

Welcome to Port Royal, Mr. Smith*

It seems some Texans have issues with "foreign-sounding" names.
“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?” Brown said.

There's a lot of noise on this item about The Entitlement, The WASPishness and The Ignorance associated with Ms. Brown's perspective. I think it goes deeper than that.

The problem Brown sees, though, seems to me less culturally significant and more intellectually lazy. It's not merely the Hsus and Chens and Huangs that are affected, but a far larger swath of the population with names more complex than one syllable or six characters. Ms. Brown merely adds a cultural and racial component to this laziness.

The problem Ms. Brown seems to see is the difficulty with the "foreign-ness" of the names. This, coming from someone obviously part of that "nation of immigrants" the US keeps touting as a badge of honour, whose people have been here at most four hundred years themselves (most likely much less), is galling until one recalls how each particular wave of immigration has been viewed by each preceding one. The Irish and Italian immigrants were despised by their English, French, German and Spanish hosts; the Poles, Czechs and Slavs despised by the Irish and Italians who preceded them; and so on. In each case, for each wave, there are countless stories of immigrants whose "unpronouncable" names were replaced with something like "Smith" or "Jones" by immigration officials who were unable or unwilling to attempt to sort out the names the immigrants gave them on entry.

There is, of course, a certain Othering at work in Ms. Brown's statements: Chinese immigrants would, by her logic, do so much better if they were only more like us. The presumption, however, that abandoning one's name (a supremely personal item) is appropriate to becoming part of the culture is something I find personally offensive - particularly since my own name, which should be far less difficult, is no less frequently butchered by the same sorts making claims like hers.

I have a very, VERY English name. My last name is of Norman origin (my people arrived in England with William I), and can be traced back to 10th century Normandy. My first is equally English, and fairly recognizable. However, for whatever reason no-one in the US seems to get it right, either in pronunciation or spelling. Correcting people has become almost second nature. And all this for a name Ms. Brown's logic would skip due to its origins.

I suspect that there are many like myself, whose names while not everyday are certainly recognizable as of a familiar origin, yet who face the same sort of troubles that Ms. Brown seems to have with Asians. Adding a racist tone to the sort of change Ms. Brown suggests layers on a new level of offensiveness, but the larger issue - that the US has a long and storied history of such resistance to every group of more recent arrivals, and has been equally unkind to them all - is an example more of long-practiced intellectual laziness than the bias implied in her single statement.

* from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

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