Avoiding Awkward Asian Names: Naming Tips for Hyphenated Americans

By Mark Skoultchi

August 12, 2013

8302251254_9041f47ed3_oSeveral people have asked me, “Hey, have you read that novel with Eunice Park as one of the main characters?” And yes, while it’s strange to see my name in a post-apocalyptic satire, my name is kind of common – if you happen to be a Korean-American female. A quick Facebook search turns up at least 980 profiles.

A few name-minded folk have asked, “Eunice…is that a family name?”, especially those who have a great-aunt or great-something-or-other with my namesake. (And if they hear “Eunice Parks,” they’re surprised that I’m not an older African-American matriarch). My well-practiced response is: “No, not really. Well, ‘Yoon’ and ‘Yoo’ are very common first syllables in the two-syllable structure of Korean first names. That’s why you have so many kimchi-gobbling ‘Eugenias,’ ‘Eugenas,’ and ‘Eugenes’.”

The preponderance of “Eu-” names has little or nothing to do with meaning “good” in Greek, but everything to do with what my ocean-crossing parents could pronounce. Alas, this criterion seems to be the only thing that many Asian parents consider when they decide on their offspring’s names in the Land of Opportunity (for Name-Induced Trauma).

Case in point: if I had been a bundle of boy joy, I would have been named “Lancelot.” Not “Lance,” mind you, but “Lancelot.” Thanks a lot, as I just narrowly missed a lifetime of Round Table Pizza references and jousting jokes. I’m especially sympathetic to the legions of awkwardly-named Asian-Americans, trying to forge identities with gigglenauts of names – a task I don’t envy, especially in the buck-toothed aftermath of “Long Duk Dong”, “Fook Yu”, and “Fook Mi.”

So, for all you aspiring immigrant parents (Asian and otherwise), with great distance comes great (naming) responsibility – especially if you cross the international date line and numerous cultural and language barriers to give your kid a shot at the American Dream. Here are a few tips on culturally-appropriate naming for your little (or not-so-little) one.

Make sure you can pronounce it.
This might sound obvious, but make sure your tongue doesn’t have to contort itself to call your kids to the dinner table. I still don’t know why so many Asian kids are named Lillian (especially “Lees”) and Hilary (cruel and unusual punishment, perhaps?).

Consider culture – both American and yours.
Be culturally-sensitive and think about what the potential names mean, not just in the literal sense, but in the cultural context in which they will exist.  Put on your anthropological cap and do a little cultural digging. Check for any negative associations or just plain awkward or funny double (and unintentional) meanings, whether you choose a new name or spell out an existing one in English.  Or put aside extra money for therapy bills when your child is mercilessly taunted for being named “Won Suk.”

Consider the “cool” factor.
Okay, the last thing you might be thinking about is whether your kid’s name will be cool or not. You just want them to do well in school and get ahead. But consider for a second that generally speaking, American culture emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual over more communal-minded Asian cultures – and the name is the first and perhaps most vital expression of your kid’s identity. It should make them stand out from the crowd, but not too far out. Some of that cultural excavation should help you determine what’s cool and what’s just cruel (Bertha, Giovanni).

Think outside the biblical box.
Even though the church may form your support group in the new country, try to look beyond the Good Book when naming your kids (see above tip about keeping cool). If you do go the Judeo-Christian route, keep the names short and no-nonsense (James, Sara), and stay away from the dated, so your babes don’t sound like they belong in assisted living (cue Esther, Judith, Trinity, Mary, Felix), particularly since the secularity of many American names makes them stand out even more starkly.

Don’t go overly retro.
Some names are timeless, and some should be retired; namely, anything remotely 1950s-sounding (Henry, Frederick, Hubert, Calvin, Carol, Joyce). I’ve known many a wee Asian lad or lass to be saddled with clunkers like Gladys, Hortense, Jacky, Elbert, Winnie, Victor, Ginnie, Cecilia, Alvira, Cindy, Mimi, Connie, Lucy, Dennis. Gauge a name’s (pop)cultural and historical appropriateness by Googling it and seeing what comes up. Also ask native English speakers to help you discern whether a certain name is likely to scream “twinset and shuffleboard,” unless that’s what you’re going for.

Beware the nickname.
Nicknames function differently in the U.S.; namely, that two very different-sounding names may be nicknames for the same source name (Dick and Rick for Richard, Sue and Suzy for Susan). If you have twins, refrain from naming them Danny and Daniel because these are actually two forms of the same name. They’re especially screwed if they’re identical. Remember that the primary purpose of names is to differentiate between objects and people, not to confuse them – even though I admit that this whole nickname thing is pretty confusing as well.

And last but certainly not least:

Use your spellcheck.
No, seriously. Make sure the name of your choosing is spelled correctly, so you don’t have an angry adolescent named “Staphanie” or “Jakub.” An ounce of spellcheck prevents a lifetime’s worth of embarrassment.

Remember that a name says a lot more than you think about your child – before he or she even has a chance to speak. It’s tough enough to grow up in this country with a multicultural heritage, and a thoughtfully-selected name can make that journey a little bit easier.

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