Dao, my service rep at the Berkeley Toyota dealer is expecting a baby. I know because she told me. I am pleased at so many levels. I spent much of my legal career fighting to bust open the doors to good paying jobs that previously excluded women. The automotive repair world has few women, and hearing about transmissions and timing bells from a pregnant woman of South East Asian ancestry in a busy auto shop . . . thrills me just a tad.
As Dao walks up to my car to greet me, I notice that she looks pregnant, most definitely. Still, I refrain from blurting out, “Wow Dao, you’re expecting, congratulations.” Here’s the rule: unless you see the baby crowning or you are in the delivery room where a C-section is being performed, do not ever ask a woman if she is expecting or make any comment to suggest you think she’s pregnant. Not a WORD.
At last year’s service recall visit, Dao tells me she’s just returned from their honeymoon. Mazel Tov, who’s the lucky guy? She describes Charlie, as a “typical American mutt,” part Polish, Irish, German, a bit of everything, you know, just a regular white guy.
After congratulating Dao when she tells me they’re expecting, I ask if she and her husband have picked out names.
“I told Charlie, our baby’s not gonna get any kinda ghetto name, like the names some of our friends have given their children. If it’s a girl we’ll name her Madeline and a boy, Lincoln. I want our baby to have names that people will vote for if they run for President.” My mind goes into high gear. Didn’t we elect Barak Hussein Obama (who used to be known as Barry) into a second-term as President of the United States? I want to engage Dao in a conversation about the assumptions that underlie her comment. I smile, congratulate her once more, and tell her that Madeline and Lincoln are lovely names.
Dao’s desire to give her children Americanized names, speaks to her hopes that they be accepted and fit in more easily among their peers. It was common for immigrants who came to the United States in the large waves of the late 1800s and early 1900s to change their names for various reason: to sound more American, to better fit in, to adopt a new identity in their new country, to avoid discrimination, to expand business opportunities. According to numerous books and official documents about the workings at Ellis Island, it is a myth that people’s names were routinely changed there. (Subject for a future column). It happened in various ways, at the children’s schools, the union halls, the job site, when the building owner didn’t know how to spell foreign name on the rent receipts. “Giuseppe Bianchi, how about we call you Joe White.”
The sooner immigrants could fly under the radar, the sooner they would just be as Dao puts it, typical American mutts, just regular white people.
These days few immigrants change their names. The New York Times examined 500 name change applications in 2010 filed with the Civil Court in New York City (the city with the largest foreign born population) and of the 500 name change applications, only a half dozen appeared to be Anglicizing their surname. An almost equal number of Russian and Eastern European Jews were reverting to their original family surnames. Several individuals named Mohammed filed petitions to change their names, no doubt in response to anti-Muslim sentiment. According to sociologists interviewed for the NY Times news story, as the US has become a more multicultural country, names reflecting ones’ ancestry are more acceptable.
The newly arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s could more easily blend into the whirling sea of Europeans, and those immigrants eventually became part of the great American melting pot. Today’s immigrants from Asia and Latin America, with more distinctive physical characteristics, are unlikely to blend in with a name change.
I returned recently to Berkeley Toyota for routine maintenance, and was greeted by Jim, standing in for Dao’s while she was on maternity leave. I inquire about her.
“Yep, she’s great, out a few more weeks with her new baby.”
“Girl or boy?”
“How wonderful, I bet her name is Madeline.”
“How in the world did you know?”