Tshab Her grew up feeling like she lived a double life.
Like many Asian Americans, the 29-year-old Hmong American artist was always switching between two names: an Asian name and her “American” name.
Jennifer, her legal first name, was what teachers and employers called her, and what she used in “White spaces,” she said. But her middle name Tshab, which means “new” in the Hmong language, was what her family and close friends called her within their small community in Aurora, Illinois.
The Hmong ethnic group is spread across China and Southeast Asia, but most Hmong Americans — like Her’s parents — are refugees from Laos who fled during the Vietnam War.
“When I went as Jennifer, I felt like I was playing a role — this White-assimilated, American Dream type,” said Her, now based in Chicago. “Tshab and Jennifer were always at tension with each other … I felt like I was always living a different life as Jennifer, than who I wanted to be as Tshab.”
There’s a long history of Asian Americans using Anglo or anglicized names — whether they adopted new White-sounding names like John or Jennifer, or changed the pronunciation or spelling of their original name to better suit English speakers. The practice was popularized in the 19th century due, in part, to fear in the face of intense racism and xenophobia.
Tshab Her, a Hmong American artist whose work pays homage to her heritage and family. Credit: Tshab Her
America has since undergone a cultural sea change. The past decade alone has seen surging demand for greater diversity, inclusion and representation. And as the national conversation shifts, many Asian Americans, including high-profile creatives and celebrities, are facing similar personal reckonings with their names.
After reflecting on her identity and how she presented herself, Her decided to drop Jennifer and go by Tshab when she started college. It felt empowering, she said — an affirmation of heritage, the Hmong language, and her parents’ journey to the United States in the ’70s and ’80s.
For Her, just existing under her Hmong name “creates space in itself” and pays tribute to her roots, she said.
An artist, she also incorporates the journey from one name to another in her work, which celebrates Hmong history and iconography. One embroidery piece reads “It’s pronounced Cha,” while another reads “My name is Tshab, but the check is payable to Jennifer Her.”
A history of violence and assimilation
There are a number of reasons why, with the most basic being convenience. English speakers often had trouble pronouncing or spelling non-English names, and for many immigrants it was just easier to choose a new “American” name. There were financial motivations, too — immigrant business owners may have felt that an anglicized name would better appeal to customers.
Chinese immigrants play cards while waiting in the immigration offices at Ellis Island, US, around 1940-1950. Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
But this seemingly eager pursuit of the American Dream doesn’t fully capture the dark realities immigrants faced. Asians in the US were often demonized, exploited and discriminated against from the moment they arrived. Assimilation — including the adoption of a new name — was seen a survival tactic.
Asian men being interrogated by an immigration officer on February 2, 1951 in Brooklyn, New York. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Asians in the 19th and early 20th century were largely portrayed as “strange, but also inferior, dirty, uncivilized,” said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “(Back then) the desire to fit in is also about surviving an overtly racist, hostile society” that targeted “Asian difference.”
Now, a century later, it’s common for members of the third or fourth generation not to have an Asian name at all.
The cost of sacrificing a name
The nation and its racial tensions have evolved since then — but Asian and non-English names continue to be othered, treated as strange or used as cheap punchlines.
Asian Americans have continued to proactively adapt their names, many citing ongoing forms of discrimination. Bennet, who started her acting career as Chloe Wang, spoke out about changing her surname on social media after being questioned about it in 2017.
Kelly Marie Tran poses with ‘Star Wars’ stormtroopers on the red carpet in London on December 18, 2019. Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images
Their public testimonies are part of a growing conversation about the potential psychological toll of adapting or compromising your birth name. Names aren’t just an arbitrary collection of letters and sounds; for Asian Americans, who often juggle multiple languages, cultures and socioethnic circles, a name can encompass various elements of identity.
Tanaïs, a Bengali-American novelist and owner of a beauty and fragrance brand. Credit: Max Cohen
For instance, Tanaïs, a Bengali American novelist and owner of a beauty and fragrance brand, was born with the name Tanwi Nandini Islam. Tanaïs, 38, uses they and them pronouns.
Their parents, who had immigrated to the US from Bangladesh, chose their birth name carefully; “Tanwi” has various meanings in Sanskrit, including a blade of grass. “Nandini” means daughter, and is another name for the goddess Durga. And “Islam,” which also reflects their family’s Muslim background, means peace. Tanaïs, the name they go by today, is the combination of the first two letters of the three names.
“To have a name that holds all these cultural meanings, is very powerful,” they said. “I am all of those things, from my ancestors to where I am now.”
But during childhood, nobody knew how to say “Tanwi,” or put any real effort into learning, they said. Tanaïs does not even remember teachers saying their name out loud, with a first grade teacher declaring that “Tanwi” was too hard to pronounce and using Tony instead.
“I was Tony for the whole year. I hated it, it wasn’t my name,” said Tanaïs. “I remember being very unhappy — I felt misunderstood. I felt misgendered because it sounded like a boy’s name to me.”
To accidentally bungle someone’s name upon introduction can be an innocent mistake. But to deliberately dismiss their name as too strange or complicated to attempt, like Tanaïs’ teacher did, sends the message that “you don’t matter, you don’t belong,” said Choy, the UC Berkeley professor.
“The consistent mispronunciation or misspelling of one’s Asian name — questions and requests for you to simplify or change your name — do take a toll on one’s individual psyche,” she said. “Names reflect your presence, your being, your history. When people constantly do that, they’re not acknowledging you — as a person, as a human being.”
However, the study cautioned that it could be a case of correlation, not causation — for instance, people who already have higher self-esteem could be more reluctant to change their names, and less influenced by stigma.
“When I first started doing comedy, people were like, ‘You should change your name,'” he went on to explain. “And I’m like, I’m not going to change my name. If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.”
A reclamation of heritage
There are, however, signs of gradual change.
The number of people adopting new names fell in the late 20th century, said Smith, the former USCIS historian. This was partly due to the emergence of automated systems, like those used to register drivers’ licenses, that are designed for just one legal name. But social change was likely a bigger factor, she said.
“While the economic, legal, systemic pressure to maintain one name grew, social pressure to Americanize names also lessened as more Americans embraced cultural pluralism or multiculturalist views,” Smith said in an email.
We see this cultural shift in how people respond to instances of discrimination or xenophobia. Things that previously may have flown under the radar are now being called out, loudly and publicly.
The Laney College professor who asked a Vietnamese student to Anglicize her name also faced widespread backlash and was placed on administrative leave.
Demonstrators gather for a rally against anti-Asian racism and violence on March 13, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. Credit: David Ryder/Getty Images
These recent controversies are a reminder of how much work is left to be done — but also show that minority groups, and wider society, are redefining the norms of what is acceptable and what needs to be held accountable. It reflects an increasingly multicultural context — a shift that has resulted from broader changes around the world like globalization and a reshuffling of power.
“Going as Tshab was an act of resistance… That was the start of me resisting this Whiteness of American culture that was forced on me.”
Some Asian countries have become major political and economic players in recent decades, and have also wielded influence in the form of soft power. Bollywood, K-pop, anime and other aspects of Asian pop culture, for example, have gained legions of fans worldwide. And in the US, immigration policies in the late 20th century have allowed the Asian American population to increase exponentially, said Choy.
“That’s just such a different social context to be in, compared to the way it was in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s,” she said, adding that technological advances and globalization mean the “dominance of Anglo-American culture” is now “lessened.”
This new chapter is reflected in the growing demand for greater diversity across nearly every sector: entertainment, politics, food, education and more. And among young Asian Americans, there is also an increasing awareness of what their immigrant parents or grandparents had to give up to survive — a “realization that there is a loss of heritage and culture from the Asian home country,” said Choy.
For some, this realization can spark a desire to get back what was lost. By studying their parents’ or grandparents’ first language, for instance. Others might visit their ancestral homes to reconnect with their culture.
Tshab Her’s work “Returning,” is inspired by the first time her parents traveled back to Laos since they immigrated to the United States as refugees. Credit: Tshab Her
For Her, embracing her Hmong name has become a way to assert her heritage.
“Going as Tshab was an act of resistance,” she said. “I just want to be who I am, and who I am is Tshab, not (Jennifer). That was the start of me resisting this Whiteness of American culture that was forced on me.
“I think, for me, it’s natural for me to feel like I am connected to my parents or my ancestors, going more as Tshab, and not wanting to forget where I come from, where my family (are from) and what the Hmong people have gone through.”
Top image: A piece of embroidery by Hmong American artist Tshab Her.