It all started with Dad. At some point during high school, as my primary guardian, he began signing my school papers with ‘Young’ instead of ‘Yang’.My dad was always a joker and in the nonchalant manner in which he spoke about the name change, it seemed almost like a normal thing to do. I didn’t concern myself much with the difference between his last name and mine – until the anomaly became a permanent alteration.
At the dining table one evening, my dad informed the family he had legally changed his last name to ‘Young’. My grandmother also lived with us at the time but instead of responding with confusion, she only laughed when my dad mocked the surname ‘Yang’.
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 being Asian was more of condition than a cultural inheritance. As a labourer, he spent his early working years representing a coloured minority and to this day, he enjoys every opportunity to accentuate his Aussie accent.
Dad speaks English as well as the next white Australian and he’s competent at 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.
Attempting to bypass career stereotypes with my fake surname
My surname only started to become a practical hindrance in my early university years, when job applications and career decisions came to play. With each resume and cover letter I crafted, I became more acutely aware of my ‘Asianness’ and through an innocent shifting of two little letters, I attempted to erase the striking orientality from my name.
At university, I yearned to become a journalist, but the number of Asian names in the roles I coveted were few and far between. There was a plethora of Asians who were bankers, accountants or lawyers but in areas of public life, it seemed Asian names didn’t get a chance to shine.
A name is like a map, a blueprint to where we’re headed and who we’re meant to be in this world.
A change in my Gmail setting was all it took to rid of my Asian last name and the career stereotypes that accompanied it. Like Dad, I was curious to see how far a last name like ‘Young’ could take me but 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 adjusted surname gave me the reassurance that I had an equal chance at a role and least an unsuccessful application had nothing to do with my ethnicity.
I wanted to relieve the burden of superseding the stereotypes that came with the visible ‘Asianess’ on my CV. I double, triple, quadruple checked each sentence because, with a last name like ‘Yang’, I assumed even an iota of error was unforgivable. The simple act of signing off as ‘Shona Young’ meant I no longer felt the need to prove myself with flawlessly crafted emails and exceptional English. This is what being white must feel like, I thought. With two or more emails signed off as ‘Shona Young’, I began to grow accustomed to the effect my Anglo pen-name had on my shy Korean self.
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. They didn’t seem to notice the inconsistency of my surname on my email signature and my financial documents. The official paperwork was completed and 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 my every milestone was congratulated. I may not be able to change my ethnicity, but I found myself carving out a new future beyond just an Asian name. Like many others, it was the chance I had waited for.
Asian-Australians are still underrepresented
In recent years, there has been a growing number of Asian-Australians surfacing in prominent positions; some with a surname that is more difficult to pronounce than others.
There is still a long way to go for an Asian-Australian however, who remain underrepresented in public forums, on screens and in leadership positions. According to this year’s Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership by the Human Rights Commission, professionals from a non-European or Indigenous background only account for 5 percent of leadership positions amongst Australia’s ASX 200 companies.
Only 2.7 percent of non-Europeans currently occupy C-level positions and it’s safe to say that cultural diversity and equal representation is yet to be a common occurrence in Australia’s public and corporate realms.
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.