Category: Asian-American names
Guest blogger Sachiko returns with reflections on the complexities of using names from her Japanese heritage.
Growing up, I never thought Japanese names were weird. Most people in my part-Japanese, part-American Mormon family had one. I lived in Japan when I was small, and grew up going to the cherry blossom festivals in the spring, dancing at Obon in the summer and eating mochi on New Year’s Day.
Then I started naming my own children, and two things happened, one good and one bad.
First, I found out how hard it can be to choose a Japanese name. (This is the bad thing.) My Japanese is shamefully rudimentary, and barely a match for the formidable language barrier. I rely on a lot of sources for Japanese naming help, which I’ll go into later.
Second, I found out how popular Japanese names are, in the sense of being well-liked, if not yet well-used. (This is the good thing.) I had thought that nobody would appreciate a Japanese name unless they were Japanese, or maybe because they’d spent considerable time in Japan.
Several years ago, I visited a Chinese friend, Wu, who was completing a business degree in Virginia. We had originally met almost ten years prior in China, when we studied together during my college semester abroad in a city near Shanghai. Even as a college student in China, Wu had been something of an addict when it came to American popular culture, casually sprinkling his English conversation with slang expressions picked up from counterfeit DVDs of Friends. But I was still shocked when, visiting Wu in his Virginia dorm room, he proudly showed me a picture of his newborn son back in Shanghai.
“He’s so cute!”, I gushed. “What’s his name?”
Whatever your particular feelings about the merits of the name Larry for a Chinese infant, Wu’s story captures something of the capricious way that people in mainland China often choose their English names, should they decide they need one. And these days, many Chinese in large cities — even if they don’t ever plan to leave China — decide to pick a Western “nickname” for ease of doing business with foreigners, for fun, or to be fashionable.
A Chinese student in Beijing or Shanghai might choose his or her English name in high school or college (and presumably, Larry will have the freedom someday to change to a new English name if he so chooses). When I spent a summer working at a financial firm in Shanghai, it was mandatory for all Chinese employees to use their English names — even in conversation with their Chinese coworkers. The only “Claude” I’ve ever known was a 22 year-old Shanghai native in the cubicle next door.
The process by which Chinese parents name their children is anything but simple. Chinese given names are generally chosen for meaning, sometimes with the consultation of a naming expert who ensures the name is auspicious according to Chinese astrology.
By contrast, the process of a young Chinese student choosing his or her own English name is an exercise in fun and cultural freedom. Chinese shares few linguistic similarities with English, so the typical Chinese name has few built-in clues to suggest its English equivalent. Unlike an “Alexandrei” from Moscow who might use the English name “Alex,” Zhang from Beijing is under no obligation to chose “Johnny” as the closest approximation.
The New York City Health Department released its list of most popular names of 2008 today–at last–with some pretty interesting results. (It reminded me of the old Jennifer & Jason days–before the Social Security Administration was compiling a national list, when Pam and I used to have to contact –and sometimes plead with–the Health Departments of all fifty states for their figures and laboriously construct our own master list–and I recall that New York State and City were always the last to straggle in.)
For a long time–and especially considering the City’s hip reputation–New York‘s list was surprisingly conservative, with Michael, Ashley and Emily lounging in the top spots year after year. That changed somewhat in 2007, when Isabella and Sophia tied for Number One. This year, the more modern Jayden joined Sophia at the head of the list, bringing New York finally and fully into the 21st century.
Here are the Top Ten names for both genders:
But what is most intriguing about NYC is that it’s one of the few localities to break down its findings into separate ethnic lists for Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, and Asian & Pacific Islanders, revealing their extremely wide disparities. For example, the only group to have the overall No. 1 girls’ name, Sophia, at the top is the Asian; the other three each had different girls’ names–Ashley, Hispanic; Madison, Black; and Olivia, White. A few somewhat unusal choices included Melanie and Genesis on the Hispanic list; Nevaeh, Destiny and Imani on the Black; Esther (#2!), Chaya and Miriam on the White; and Tiffany, Fiona, Angela, and Vivian on the Asian.
The Top 5 for each group are:
When it comes to the boys, a more conservative picture emerges. Four of the top names were repeats of last years. Jayden was #1 for Hispanic and Black boys, Daniel for Caucasian and Ryan the top choice for Asian parents, who have long had a penchant for Irish names. There weren’t very many unexpected selections here, except possibly for Angel (Hispanic), Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah (Black), and Eric, Ivan and Vincent (Asian).
The top choices for each boy group were:
Having a baby in New York City is different from having one anywhere else, and that includes choosing a name.
The most popular New York baby names are a departure from the popular names in the rest of the country, for one thing. Daniel tops the boys’ chart for the very first time in the 2007 New York City name popularity statistics, with Jayden rising to number two. Sorry, Mayor Bloomberg, but Michael has now fallen from the top spot to number 3 for the first time in 50 years. Isabella and Sophia tied for number one for girls, unseating Ashley and Emily.
Other names that are higher on the New York popularity list than they are in the rest of the country include, for girls: Rachel, Chloe, Angelina, and Esther, and for boys, Justin, Sebastian, and David.
The reason? The diverse ethnic population accounts for much of the unique mix of New York baby names. One of the few locales that breaks down name popularity by ethnicity, names high on the list for Hispanic babies born in New York City include Angel, Luis, and Jose for boys; Mia, Angelina, and Sofia for girls.
African-American parents differed from those of other ethnic backgrounds in favoring names of black celebrities. Jada, Imani and Aaliyah were high on the girls’ popularity list, while Elijah and Isaiah were popular for boys.
The Asian popularity list featured some counterintuitive ethnic favorites. The number one name for Asian baby boys is Ryan, for example, with Kevin, Vincent, and Ivan also ranking high. For girls, Tiffany, Fiona, and Winnie, a name that doesn’t even break the national top 1000, are popular.
And then there are names on the New York City list popular among Hasidic Jewish parents that are virtually unheard of elsewhere in the country: Malky, Raizy, and Shira for girls; Moishe, Chaim, and Menacham for boys. Plus ethnic choices such as Fatoumata, Xin, Tatiana, and Mohamed that reflect New York’s special mix.
But New York wouldn’t truly be New York without a range of sophisticated names as well. Names favored by New York parents and found here more often than in other parts of the country include such refined choices as Sebastian, Julian, and Henry for boys, and Alexandra, Charlotte, and Alice for girls. Maximus and Giuliana (yes, Giuliana) have an only-in-New York quality, though Rudy was not to be found.
Of course, beyond the most popular list, there are names that are trendy in hip New York that are still rarely heard in most parts of the country. Oscar, Ruby, Atticus, and Isla may be bordering on overexposed in Tribeca and Park Slope, but might still be radical choices west of the Hudson River.
Chelsea is one New York neighborhood name that does show up on the popularity list, just outside the Top 100. New York parents — or fans of the city — in search of more original local choices might want to consult the list of New York baby names based on the city neighborhoods.