THIS IS US
An Asian-American Mom’s Advice for Dear Abby on ‘Foreign Names’
Dear Abby’s advice to parents to avoid ‘foreign names’ provoked accusations of racism. Here, an Asian-American writer recalls her and her husband’s dilemma around naming their son.
Right after my son was born, my husband and I were still debating what to name him. It was a stressful situation because the stakes felt really high, and not just because of the obvious reasons.
As modern-day immigrant parents—me a Vietnamese refugee and he an adopted South Korean orphan—our entire baby-naming debate was ultimately about whether it was better, or could actually be worse, for our all Asian-American boy to have an Asian first name, especially given that he would have a white-sounding last name.
We pondered whether one or the other would be a bigger inconvenience for him, thinking about our own experiences growing up in very different parts of America.
Convenience happens to be the reason a recent “Dear Abby” advice column suggested it was better for parents to avoid “foreign names” because it may be difficult to spell and pronounce and could cause teasing. It’s an assimilation-first mentality that many have called out as racist white-washing.
And even before this caught the ire of many, Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran had declared she was done hiding her Asian name. Now it’s painfully clear to me that this “convenience” theory was never really about us, and what “Dear Abby” encapsulated was that the entire argument was really about how our cultural identity inconvenienced others.
But let me confess I’ve been on the other side of the debate. When my husband and I began to consider baby names, I started thinking back to when I immigrated to America at 3 years old and lived through the debate to name me.
Since I set foot in Los Angeles, California back then, I was certain I should be named “Jenny.” That’s because the distant relatives we first lived with told me I needed an American name like “Jenny” in order to fit in with my new life in a land full of immigrants. And that settled it. The name embodied who and what I wanted to be.
My mom, through a bit of a misspelling, chose a different name for me, though it didn't change how much energy I spent in my childhood being embarrassed about my Asian name. Even as a toddler, I felt it exposed me as an immigrant, someone who wasn’t from here, and worse, someone who didn’t belong.
I was never concerned or felt disadvantaged by our circumstances, despite all the immense struggles of a poor immigrant family. Yet I had a certain angst about meeting new kids because of how much I hated my name and its identity.
But now I had to face-off against my husband. Few things are as universal to the Asian-American experience as the tortured or joyous road to our westernized names, what it means for our identity and the assimilation goals that are either chosen by or imposed upon us.
My husband was adopted at 9 years old and grew up with lovely white parents in rural Wisconsin. He was renamed “Edward John Obermueller.” I like it a lot because it sounds regal. But Eddie wasn’t interested in that kind of a junior. Eddie wanted to give our son the Korean name, “Yongbae.” He thought an Asian first name was important for our all Asian-American boy because he would have a white-sounding last name.
Eddie knew too well how often he himself had confused or surprised or even disappointed people simply by showing up as an Asian guy with a white-sounding name. He didn’t want our son ever to experience the feeling of being lesser than in someone else’s eyes at the first impression.
But I scoffed when he suggested it. I explained to him that rappers who used to go by “Lil,” now used the preface “Young” for their stage names, and that “Bae” had just recently become interchangeable with the term of endearment previously known as “Boo Thing.”
This was back in 2016. No one would take our son seriously thinking his millennial mom named her kid the equivalent of “Lil Boo,” I protested.
I declared I wanted an inoffensive name. My husband insisted there was no such thing.
I also simply didn’t want my first-born to be as tortured as I was every time a substitute teacher butchered his name at roll call. I had spent most of my childhood trying to hide my real name because “Phuong Ho” didn’t sound American, or powerful, or important. She was a reminder of who I was and what I wasn’t, and she’s a part of my life story.
When I met Eddie almost a decade ago, he told me the tale of his adoption with utter nonchalance. He’d been adopted relatively late in his childhood and surprised me with the deep and profound experience he described growing up.
Eddie remembers hiding under cars to sleep at night in developing neighborhoods in a country that was rebuilding after the Korean War. He recalls living in an orphanage trying to protect his birth sister, and then being shunned away from their first adoptive family for being too aggressive.
It was with their second adoptive family—the Obermuellers—that Eddie really flourished. He thrived in rural Wisconsin as a popular athlete and standout student simply by embracing being “foreign” in the farmland. He didn’t have the choice to hide anything.
After a traumatic childhood, Eddie became the strongest, most resilient, person I know through his own sheer will.
So I—like any mother who made a child in love—just want our son to be the kind of man his father is. And in the end, we did name him “Yongbae.”
Today, plenty of people express a muted surprise about the uncommon nature of our son’s name, and just about everyone asks clarifying questions. How do you spell it? What does it sound like? Does it rhyme with “hay” or “bye”? (Answers: “Young-Bay”; it rhymes with “hay.”)
And then they ask what it means.
You could deem this the so-called inconvenience that “Dear Abby” warned about. But we relish the opportunity to share. We dutifully tell them the name means “inspired dragon” in Korean. And that it’s also my husband’s birth name before he was adopted and renamed.
It often starts a conversation about what they think a name means to them in America’s melting pot. I think they’re enlightened by something they never thought about so deeply, and I know they’re touched by this story—our story.