Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What’s in one’s name?

Immigrants have to do many things to adjust to life in their new country. There’s an often-confusing maze of local customs, social mores, slang, and so much more we can only learn once we’re fully immersed. But if we want to fully fit in, should we change our name?

Today the New Zealand Herald published a story, “Name changing a game changer for migrants' job prospects, study finds” which was at once inspiring and dreadfully sad—and a little bit angering.

The gist of the story is that many immigrants to New Zealand anglicise their names in order to get jobs. I’d noticed that years ago with immigrants from China and East Asia in particular, and assumed that it was because their names were hard for English speakers to pronounce. It turns out, that actually is a part of it, but there’s so much more.

There are some who say that this is the result of racism, and sometimes it certainly must be. But New Zealand is highly multicultural, especially in the big cities, so for most people what’s at play is probably “affinity bias”, which is an unconscious bias. In this context, an employer might select people with names that are familiar—anglicised—because they feel a connection with that person, as well as an implicit understanding, perhaps. This usually happens with no particular thought, but when the employer does it deliberately, then it’s probably at least tinged with racism. This is the part that can be angering—when the immigrant is implicitly forced to change their name.

The part that I found sad was that, as so many people must also think, “they shouldn’t have to do that”. But that’s not our call to make. Sure, they shouldn’t have to do it in order to get a job, but if we were in that position, and the way to get past affinity bias in order to get a job was to change our name, how many of us would refuse to do that?

I think that if I were in a similar position I would do it. I say that because when I was in Berlin as a tourist many years ago, I called myself “Artur” to be understood and to fit in a little better. Here in New Zealand, the name Arthur is common enough, even though the R’s are much softer than in my native land. So, I shift the R’s whenever I give my name, something a bit like “Ah-thuh”. Changing how my name is pronounced is just one step away from changing it altogether.

What I’ve faced is absolutely NOTHING compared to someone from places like India, Pakistan, the Middle East, East Asia, and other places where English may not be the first language, and where anglicised names aren’t common. Unlike them, I’m extremely lucky to have a first name that can escape the affinity bias. But even I had to make adjustments to fit in.

So, limited though my experience has been, I nevertheless also understand why they change their names. I admire the folks who do that to stand a better chance of fitting into their new country, and to give themselves a better chance of succeeding. It takes determination to do that, and a willingness to do whatever is necessary. I can’t begrudge anyone for making that choice.

People shouldn’t have to change their names to get jobs, and plenty of immigrants don’t. But if someone does so, ultimately, it is their choice. Whether we think it’s justifiable or not, we should respect their right to make their own choices.

But, it still does make me sad they may have to do it.

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