Why I'm Still 'Thuy' and not 'Jane' or 'Susie'

News & Politics

I chose to keep my father's name when my mother remarried. I chose to keep my given Vietnamese name when everyone was changing theirs to Cathy or Jennifer. Really, what else do I have to show that I am Vietnamese?

On my mom's side, five out of the seven women in my family adopted American names, like Jasmine or Karen. In school, I would see girls named Linda, Anne or Susie whom I know weren't called that by their mothers.

I respect their decision to make their names into something easier for others to pronounce and understand. A name is an important thing, and being able to create your own is powerful. It means you can choose your own identity over the one your parents chose for you. But I made a different choice.

Unlike many other Asians, I was not teased when was I growing up because of my name. This was because I was raised in San Jose, where minorities are the majority. There are more "Bao's" and "Jose's" than "Bills" or "Janes." In school, my classes were filled with other Vietnamese students. At home, we spoke Vietnamese, but in school we spoke English to each other -- if we didn't, we were labeled as FOBs (for "fresh off the boat").

My mother made great attempts to preserve our home language of Vietnamese by pretending she did not understand us when we spoke English to her. But because of school, even my Vietnamese took on an American accent. Eventually, that included the pronunciation of my own name.

Even though the schools I went to were filled with Vietnamese students, I had to Americanize my name for the teachers in order for them to pronounce it. Even then, I'd have to come up with a story to help them remember my name. I'd tell them to use the "Bingo" song:" clap, clap, N-G-O, clap , clap, N-G-O, and Thuy Ngo was her name-0." When you think about it, it's kind of sad to have to go through all of that trouble just so your teacher will remember your name.

As for my first name, they would come up with all sorts of ways to say it -- except for the way I wanted them to. Thuai, They, Tai, and Thew were among the most popular.

The proper pronunciation of my name is something along the lines of "Tuwee Ngo." To get it right, you have to raise the pitch on "Thuy" and bring forth the Ng sound from the back of your throat. It gets difficult to explain, so after a while I gave up.

I guiltily admit that with all the frustrations of trying to help people through my name, I have thought of changing it. The American names I considered were exotic ones like "Gwen," "Florence" or "Serenity." Maybe that's because, although my Vietnamese name may sound unusual to non-Vietnamese, it is actually very common -- the Vietnamese equivalent of "Jane."

These days, when I introduce myself, I use an Americanized pronunciation of my name: Twee No. This makes things easier, and I feel like the compromise fits my dual identity as an Asian American. But it also leaves me open to stereotypes. Some Asians, hearing me say my name, think of me as a "Twinkie" -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Other Vietnamese folks who have completely taken on an American identity see my keeping my ethnic name as implying the opposite -- there's a good chance I'm a FOB.

If I ever have kids, I might make things easier for them by doing what my mother did for my younger siblings: give them both an American and a Vietnamese name. My brother, for example, is Steve Van Nguyen, also known as Bang Van Nguyen. This way, the kid would have the option of using either name without "giving up" anything.

In the end I am keeping my name because I shouldn't have to prove anything to anyone. Plus, you have to pay money to change your name in court.

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