Adapting: What’s Your Name Again?

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One day last month a memo came from Human Resources: “Your employee, Chung Ming Min, needs to complete this form…” No problem… with one exception – who was Chung Ming Min? There were several employees in my division with the last name of Min and several more had Chung or Ming in their names. Who was I looking for?

Turned out it was Jenny Min. It took me a whole day to figure it out and it was only by looking through half a dozen old employee files that I managed to come up with the solution.

Changing or adopting new names in order to more easily assimilate to another culture has been going on for  generations. A century ago, when Irish orphans arrived in Quebec they were asked to adopt French Canadian names. It was thought, at the time, that having names that were similar to the other citizens would make it easier for the children to blend in. Most did change their names but some refused, and to this day you will often hear Irish names still used in Quebec.

To avoid discrimination following World War II, many of the people who immigrated to Canada from Germany and Russia changed their last names. Schwartz was changed to Black (the literal translation from German to English) and the Russian Romanovsky, was changed to Roman. Whether or not the prejudice would have existed based on their name alone is unknown but it gave the families security, believing they had done something to distance themselves from their past.

Sometimes people change their names just for the sake of making things easier to spell. Polish names often contain letters that can’t be translated into English characters. Other names have different meanings in their original language than they do in English. Even the current US President, Barack Hussein Obama was known as Barry Obama in College!

It is very common for newcomers to Canada to adopt a Canadian-ized name – but do you have to in order to get ahead? The simple answer is no. It is not a requirement to have an Anglicised name to get along in Canada. Although it may make your life easier if you make modifications.

According to a study from the University of British Columbia called Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Six Thousand Résumés, “Canadian-born individuals with English-sounding names are much more likely to receive a callback for an job interview after sending their resumes compared to foreign-born individuals, even among those with foreign degrees from highly ranked schools, or among those with the same listed job experience but acquired outside of Canada.” Professor Philip Oreopoulos, the author of the study published in 2009, argued that the gap in the employment rates of immigrants not even making it to the interview stage in the job application process.”

By law, employers aren’t allowed to discriminate based on your cultural background. Does it happen though? Of course it does. Ask yourself this: When speaking to a recruiter, can I clearly pronounce and have the person I’m speaking to understand what my full name is? If you can’t – then perhaps it would be best to use a pseudonom (same as an alias or a nickname). It’s a name you can substitute for your own.

However, all of us have a legal name. That is the name registered on all of your paperwork and what you would use for banking, taxes and in any dealings with the government. In addition to your legal name you can adopt another.

Eustathios is often changed to Steve, Jaspal can be Jas and Chung Ming can be Jenny. It’s your choice. The trend nowadays on résumés is to provide both options. For example, the name portion of the resume itself would read:

“Kwun-Mei (Bonnie) Tao”

Both the Chinese and Anglicized names are listed. It’s extremely important though that you remain consistent on all of your paperwork, and if you use the name Bonnie – stick with it!

To legally change your name you would need to complete official paperwork with the government. Your papers will all be reissued in your new name. You can find out more information about the fees and requirements on the Government of Canada website.

Ultimately, it’s important to be true to yourself and how you identify yourself is part of that.

I have a friend named May Ling Lee. At work, she is May Ling. To her friends, she is May Ling. To her family, she is Susan – sister to Heather and Jessica. These are the names they helped each other choose when they arrived in Canada as children from Hong Kong. To me, May Ling will never be a ‘Susan’.

To answer the question – what is in a name? – William Shakespeare said “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Sandra Fletcher
Sandra has specialized in Employment Services for over a decade. Her areas of expertise are Newcomer Settlement and Privacy Practices. She can be reached at sandrawrotethat@gmail.com

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