Saturday, April 11, 2009

Just Call Me Joe-Bob

A few days ago, Ramey Ko of the Association of Chinese Americans was testifying before the State Elections Committee of the State of Texas in the US. In response to Ko's testimony regarding problems that Americans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent have in voter identification in elections, State Representative Betty Brown, a Republican member of the Texas State Legislature representing District 4 (Athens/Terrell) said the following:
"Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it's a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?"

Additional source for this story here.

I am not Texan, or even American, but I just have to comment on this.

Brown's remarks undoubtedly summarize the intellectual position of at least some portion of the American population. And there are bound to be people of similar minds on this side of the border. I am reminded of the difficulties that I had growing up with a Chinese name -- one that was very different from the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. At my first job when I was a teenager, the advice given to me (I worked in in a telephone sweatshop) was that I should identify myself using a name that was more consumer-friendly.

However, that was then and this is now. Brown's colleague, Representative Trey Martinez Fischer and the people who run the Rum and Monkeys website have made available the "Betty Brown Name Generator", a web application that will help anyone with a name that is non traditional (or at least non traditional in Betty Brown's judgement) replace their name with one that people like Ms. Brown would understand and would identify with.

I am very pleased to report the following result from the Betty Brown Name Generator for me:

My Betty Brown Approved Name is Joe-Bob "WalMart" Brown.
Try The Betty Brown Name Generator yourself!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Name Generator Generator.

Y'all should call me "Joe-Bob", although if we are in a business meeting together, you could call me "J.B." At parties and in public, I will continue to respond to "hey you". While I have issues with being called "WalMart", y'all could call me "Wally" if y'all needed a nickname.

I can't help thinking that Betty Brown's problem with some names might be due to their (relatively larger) number of syllables as well as cultural context with which Ms. Brown may lack familiarity, even though she is an elected government official in a state of the wealthiest (and theoretically best educated) nation on Earth.

The Betty Brown Name generator can be seen to therefore have some wider application. In addition to the modifications to biology and astronomy textbooks that will be required to implement the position taken by the Board of Education of the State of Texas on intelligent design versus conventional scientific theories of cosmic origin and biological evolution, there could be similar rewritings of history textbooks as follows:

- replace "George Washington" with Forrest "Pabst Blue Ribbon" Brown. Even though General Washington is a Founding Father of the great nation of America, his name does have too many syllables in it for easy comprehension. Also, if this change is made, George Washington Carver can be Forrest Blue Brown Carver. Texas history books could thus immediately identify Dr. Carver as a man of colour by his name alone.

- replace "Benjamin Netanyahu" with Billy-Ray "Chicken and Dumplings" Brown. Although a long-time ally of the United States, Mr. Netanyahu's Hebrew name also has way too many syllables and "Benjamin" just makes him sound stuck up. Discussing Middle East history of the last few decades and how they were driven by an American ally named Billy-Ray should make this subject both more comprehensible and sympathetic to students in Betty Brown's Texas. Also, the "Chicken and Dumplings" nickname can be a vehicle by which the Texas educational system introduces the richness of Jewish heritage and culture and in particular, matzoh ball soup to ordinary Americans. But instead of forcing those ordinary Americans to learn the Hebrew word "matzoh", they could move with immediate understanding to "Chicken and Dumplings".

- don't replace "J. Robert Oppenheimer" with Joe-Bob "Cracker Barrel" Brown. Even though this distinguished American physicist and I share the same Betty Brown approved name (except for the nickname), Oppenheimer was attacked by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and in a Betty Brown world, it would be inappropriate to give him a name that makes him more like a "real American". (In the Sarah Palin sense of the term "real American").

- replace "Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar" with Billy-Ray "Cracker Barrel" Brown. This American physicist of Indian origin for whom the Chandra Space Telescope is named clearly has way too many syllables in a name which would be incomprehensible to people living in the world of Betty Brown. Therefore, physics textbooks in Texas can make reference to the "Cracker-Barrel Limit" instead of the Chandrasekhar Limit for calculation of the upper bound of stars which can collapse to form a white dwarf star. Keep in mind though that all this long-hair stuff is only a theory -- you know, like evolution. Or the Germ Theory of Disease. Or gravitation.

- and for goodness sake, definitely replace the names of Samuel Chao Chung Ting, Yao Ming and Kalpana Chawla. Real Americans in Betty Brown's Texas can't believe that people with names like these could win a Nobel Prize and be on the staff of a major scientific facility intended to be in Texas, or play basketball in Texas, or die in a space shuttle accident over Texas.

Betty Brown's remarks have done a lot to demonstrate the care and commitment that she feels toward people of Chinese descent, as well as to show the seriousness and credibility of some members of the Texas State Legislature. I, Joe-Bob Brown, her spiritual brother, wish her the very best political future that her remarks have shown that she deserves.


Michelle Sagara said...


I'm currently proofreading page 476 of 626, which is the one part of the process that is guaranteed to give me ulcers for any book, and, honestly I could use the amusement.

-- Tiffani "WalMart" Brown

cdgies said...

WOW!!! You mean to say you actually thought that Americans are wealthy and smart?!! When their teachers show up at our border wanting to go skiing in the middle of summer in Ontario!They have their asses so far in debt they will not recover from it! (and nor will any nation who followed their lead in greed) The sad thing is they did it to themselves! There is an unprecedented level of greed, and sense of entitlment in that country. Not to mention the level of violence that is only revivaled by nations with terrorist organizations. Their overall lack of empathy, or understanding is absolutey staggering.
But not to worry Do-Ming there are thousands of immigrates who's names were changed for the same reasons when they came to this country after the second world war.

Anonymous said...

My surname name is preConquest Anglo-Saxon. The pure anglo-saxon form - which can be found in the Doomsday Book and which means "Noble Protector" - is very difficult for modern (post- "Great Vowel Movement") English speakers to pronounce. Even I can't manage it, and its the kind of back-of-the-throat gutterals that seem to defeat people for whom English is a second language. So there's a compromise, but if you hear that you are undoubtedly going to spell it incorrectly.

Its a very British name; my ancestors and collaterals figure large in history: trade, military, medicine and politics. Plenty of mentions in Wikipedia.

But for some reason Americans keep asking me if I'm Russian or if I'm Dutch.

Which surprises me because my accent is so clearly British.

Do-Ming Lum said...

Follow up from "anonymous", via e-mail (which took me 10 seconds of thought and a google search to figure out). In response to my question about the relevance of the above remarks, this was the answer:
"You were talking about Asian names that were unpronounceable to English

I have a English name that's unpronounceable to English speakers.
What you hear me say is the modern accommodation - post GVS. And yes,
there are many English names that survived the GVS unscathed. Sadly the
families didn't survive the Tudors or the Commonwealth.

The English write "Lee" for a variety of Chinese names that even to my
ears are quite different. But English-speaking ears hear my name and
spell it in a variety of different ways. I used to collect envelopes
with such labels but long since gave up.

And I'm not joking about the Americans who, when I tell them my name,
think its Russian.

The GVS is significant because it accounts for many of the American
accents too."

All of which is interesting, but does nothing to detract from my original rant, which ultimately amounts to this: no one has the right to deny my right to be here on the basis of my name.