“Ensign Laren”: How names in Star Trek relate to Asian identities

Pulaski meets Data in SickbayIn the premiere episode of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the audience is treated to a scene where the new Chief Medical Officer, Dr Pulaski, interacts with Lieutenant Commander Data in his office. She addresses the android as “Dahta”, a different pronunciation than the one which viewers (and Data himself) are familiar with. Data is quick to correct her, and upon his correction, Dr Pulaski asks, almost rhetorically, “What’s the difference?”

To which Data responds: “One is my name. The other is not.”

In the past week, the Asian American community has been shaken at the news of a shooting in Atlanta, Georgia. The shooting, which left eight dead, most of whom were Asian women, has opened up not only a discussion of racial violence against Asian-Americans which has grown exponentially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the multitudes of microaggressions that Asian Americans and Asian communities have faced which have been normalized by society.

One of these many microaggressions is the treatment of Asian names by non-Asian people. Often, Asian people have had to content either with a mispronunciation of their names, or an adoption of a second, English name. This is often done unwillingly, sometimes as a result of uncomfortable and even humiliating experiences around others’ attempts to deal with their names. I can still remember clearly how a non-Asian professor skipped pronouncing my name entirely on the first day of class, and never referred to me by my name for the entire duration of the semester unless absolutely necessary (like returning our test papers). It was, needless to say, an embarrassing and demeaning experience, even as this happened in an Asian country, and my class was comprised entirely of Asian students.

This particular incident convinced me to use my English name (which I gave to myself) in subsequent professional engagements. I can only imagine how members of the Asian diaspora must feel, on a regular basis, to have their names mispronounced and questioned, or be asked by non-Asian people if they have another name in lieu of the one they cannot and do not wish to learn how to pronounce.

These experiences are also exist beyond our conversations and interactions as well. For example, forms that require the person to fill in their first and last names also do not accommodate the structure of Asian names, which are incredibly diverse and vary across ethnic groups. As a result, Asian people have to distort the order of their names in order for the software or service personnel to get their names right.

At this juncture, I am reminded of Ensign Ro’s first meeting with Captain Picard, and how the latter mistakenly calls her Ensign Laren—her given name—rather than Ensign Ro, which is her last name. Ro’s response to Picard’s ignorance was as such:

“Most Bajora these days accept the distortion of their names in order to assimilate. I do not.”

Picard and Ro in "Ensign Ro"

This moment strikes a louder chord when one considers that a significant portion of the Bajoran culture was inspired by Asian cultures and aesthetics, from their names to their script. In that vein, it does seem that many in the Asian community have seemingly accepted the mispronunciation and treatment of their names as a fact of life. Some, like I, adopt an English name, in order to better fit into society and to prevent the awkwardness of having to constantly correct others on the pronunciation of their names.

Names form an important part of our identities; they are distinctive markers of race, culture, and history. When one is denied the proper address of their name, or is made to alter their name in order to assimilate into society, they are made to hide, modify, and disguise a certain part of their identity, culture, and roots. Both Data and Ro recognize this; it is also no mistake that both of them belong to marginalized communities in Star Trek: the former striving for the recognition of their personhood, the latter asserting the strength of their community after a harrowing occupation of their homeworld.

As the horrific events surround the 2021 Atlanta shooting continue to unfold, it is important that we recognize the various forms that discrimination can take, and take steps to remedy them. Sometimes, it can start with getting a person’s name right.

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