A week ago, a friend and I had an intriguing conversation about names. Both of us are from Asian immigrant families; both of us care deeply about our cultural heritage; both of us plan to ensure our children are multilingual. Yet we differ in how we introduce ourselves. Despite going by a Korean name at home, he goes by an innocuous white name outside his family. In contrast, I hold steadfastly to a traditional Indian name in all spheres of my life. Which of us has gotten it right?
By most metrics, immigrants should follow my friend’s example. In 2003, social scientists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that job applicants with white-sounding names receive more callbacks for interviews than applicants with African-American names. Similar studies have confirmed this result for other ethnic minorities. Besides, in an election season rife with xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, I can’t say I blame anyone for eschewing his or her birth name to assimilate into American society.
Assimilation has become the centerpiece of America’s complicated relationship with immigrants. It has been paradoxically asserted as both a national ideal embraced by policymakers and as a sinister force that robs people of their individuality and heritage. As usual, the true nature of assimilation probably lies somewhere along this spectrum.
It makes sense to encourage or even compel immigrants to learn English, for instance. Speaking the language of a host country is necessary for basic survival. Cultural relativism in the strictest sense also seems incompatible with the basic mores of American culture. As Tom Gjelten of The Atlantic notes, giving all cultures equal credence means accepting the unsavory aspects of other cultures too, including the abridgment of free speech or women’s rights. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously argued in favor of assimilation by suggesting that a “cult of ethnicity” had arisen in America that “belittl[ed] unum and glorifi[ed] pluribus.” The goal of the country, he noted, was to “forge a new American culture,” not preserve existing ones.
But Schlesinger seems to have taken a rather uncharitable view of immigrant cultures. Surely, most immigrants have a basic sense of human decency, and most traditions are innocuous trivialities — not grave philosophical attacks on the American way of life (whatever that means). I am also not sure I buy that the country’s goal is to amalgamate existing cultures into some sort of new, uniquely American set of traditions. I reject the idea that I ought to give up some aspect of my Indian identity in order to fit into some grand ideological design; the traditions of the country of my birth aren’t contradictory to the civic values of the nation that I live in. I firmly believe that I can be as Indian as I am American.
Yet my opinion seems to be at odds with the realities of many first- and second-generation immigrant children. A common trope of the Indian diaspora community is the “ABCD” — the American-Born Confused Desi (desi being slang for an Indian person). It’s meant to poke fun at the trend of immigrant children preferring things like Hollywood to Bollywood or refusing (or being unable) to speak in native languages. Often, younger immigrant children reject their cultural heritage outright out of fear of being ostracized. Too often, parents follow suit.
It seems that immigrants have moved too far toward assimilation and have forgotten what brought us here to begin with. The reason so many of our families first came to the United States is that there is respect for a wider range of life choices here than pretty much anywhere else in the world. We have a set of obligations to uphold, but so, too, do the other citizens of this country. We ought to demand a base line of respect for our identities, and nothing can be more fundamental to identity than our own names.
It sucks that my name is likely to be used as a basis for discrimination. It’s a pain to constantly correct people when they mispronounce it. But that minor inconvenience is one worth living with. Besides, my name isn’t even all that difficult to pronounce. Those with names that are far harder to say should still insist that others at least make a good faith effort to pronounce them instead of changing their names for the sake of convenience. Our names may be different, but we are still citizens like any other. It is only when we insist upon the normalcy of our names and identities that this country becomes truly ours.
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .