At some point during high school, Dad began signing my permission slips with ‘Young’ instead of ‘Yang’. It was a strange move, but Dad has always been a joker. So I didn’t think much of it until one evening over dinner, he casually announced that he had changed his legal name to Young.
He explained his new name made him sound ‘less Asian’ — especially when paired with his white-sounding first name, Earl. Dad had moved to Australia from Korea at a time when open racism still writ large. He spoke English as well as any Australian and was as qualified as the next white guy in a variety of skilled and strategic jobs. So why not shift a few letters in his surname and be seen as equals — he thought — at least on paper? It was a radical, but ingenious move. And one that he encouraged me to consider “for the sake of my future” once I turned 18.
At university, I dreamed of being a journalist, but the number of Asian names in the roles I’d coveted were few and far between.
At university, I dreamed of being a journalist, but the number of Asian names in the roles I’d coveted were few and far between. There were any number of successful Asian bankers, accountants or lawyers, it seems. But in areas of public life? Our names rarely get a chance to shine.
The reality of having a non-white last name began to hit home when I started applying for media internships. For the first time, I felt the pressure of needing to supersede all of the stereotypes that came with the visible ‘Asianess’ on my CV. I double, triple, quadruple checked each sentence. With a last name like ‘Yang’, I assumed even an iota of error was unforgivable.
A name is like a map, a blueprint to where we’re headed and who we’re meant to be in this world. Eventually, I was curious to see how far a last name like ‘Young’ could take me. A simple resume update and a change in my Gmail setting was all it took. Before I knew it, I’d submitted more than a dozen job application with my partly-fake last name.
As I applied for writing internships at newspapers and different marketing departments, my fake surname gave me the reassurance that I had an equal chance at a role. Or at least an unsuccessful applications had nothing to do with my ethnicity. Even the simple act of signing off as ‘Shona Young’ meant I no longer felt the need to proof myself with flawlessly crafted emails and exceptional English. This is what being white must feel like, I thought.
I felt the pressure of needing to supersede all of the stereotypes that came with the visible ‘Asianess’ on my CV.
I hung on to my fake surname until the end of university, when I came clean the moment I landed my first part-time job in the marketing department of a small technology company. From payslips, to business cards and company email addresses, once again my real name was on full display.
Only this time around, I had an opportunity to build it up with my own hard work. Each blog post I’d written for the company was penned with ‘Shona Yang’ and every milestone was recorded under my Korean surname. I may not be able to change my ethnicity, but I found myself carving out a future beyond what a predominantly white culture had imagined for me. Like many others, it was the chance I’d been waiting for.
In recent years, there has been a growing number of Asian-Australians in the public eye; some with more difficult to pronounce surnames than others. But with only five percent of ASX 200 company executives from a non-Anglo Saxon background, and an even smaller pool of prominent non-white Australians in the arts and politics, we still have a long way to go.
Unlike my Dad, I could never justify a complete change in my name. Now, after having worked alongside talented men and women with Asian last names and a growing body of work I can call my own, I have reverted my Gmail signature and LinkedIn profiles back to ‘Shona Yang’. There are times when I still wonder whether I am being judged by my name, but I’m also starting to see the unique privilege that comes with it. It is a heritage, a pillar of my identity and a chance to resist stereotypes that are still pervasive in our society. As for my Dad — for better or worse — his name remains Earl Young.
Comedian Michael Hing returns with Season 2 of Where Are You Really From? to unpack that perennial question. The four-part documentary series premieres Wednesday, 19 June at 8pm on SBS.
Catch up on Season one on SBS On Demand.
Shona is a freelance writer based in Sydney. She writes about her passion for human rights and blogs at shonasays.com. Follow Shona on Twitter @shonaasays.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_