let’s talk about names.
UNICEF estimates that around 350.000 babies set foot on the planet every day, which means 225 births per minute and that can happen in each and every corner of the world. I remember before my sister was born, my parents and I took so many nights and talks just to think of the names for her, one is the real name — which will be used at school, professional places or in papers; the other one is the so-called “nickname” that my parents can just easily call her at home. Every creature in the world, whether human or animals, will go through a phase of having a name. I think that name is the thing that reflects the culture, and more importantly, a person with a name means that they have an identity, which I think it’s extremely powerful in our society nowadays.
Names and identities are the first impressions besides appearance. It also affects us inside and out, for example, a girl was called “Liz” when she was little just to be short and sounds cute or kiddy, but when she goes to school, she takes the name of “Elizabeth” — which is the transition between childhood and adulthood. But after all, “Liz” or “Elizabeth” is the names that her parents give to her, like people said “You better treasure with your mama gave you” — which unfortunately can be proved wrong in today’s society as people start to change their original names to something “foreign” when they go abroad.
I stumbled almost every time when people who are not familiar with Vietnamese ask me what my name is. And I found it way harder to explain to them my “long” full name, how to arrange the last and first name or whatsoever. Vietnamese is a tonal language, and not everybody can spell correctly with the tones which I have to admit. My first name, unluckily, has a tone that almost no language in the world utilizes, which is a pain for people from other countries to say my name right. I used to think about adopting a “foreign” or an American name like John or Ricky, etc but I ended up cutting off the tone and stay with my own Vietnamese name — which I think I will never change or replace it with anything else.
A 100% Vietnamese, with the name of “Robert” or “Christine” sounds super alien to me. Sometimes I wonder, is it a whitewash? Or is it because people are chasing something universal and international? Like Viet Thanh Nguyen said in the New York Times’ article: “A banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. In the international environment, I pay no judgment to those who change their names for the sake of “easy-to-be-called” but I would love to cheer for those who stay true to themselves by keeping what their parents have been calling them ever since they were young. It’s the true identity, originality, even sometimes their names are too hard to spell for other countries, but at least people have to try. It’s the way of paying no compromise to other cultural deficiencies. English does not have tones but it does not mean they people cannot try to spell your names right. If you spell Bảo right with the tone at your first try, I would love you. If you try after a few times, that’s alright keeps it up. But if you laugh it off, honey, get out! I always give people some attempts to try and do everything as they want to first. And I would love to explain to them the way that I want them to spell my name correctly. I’m protecting and bearing my own identity just by doing that. “Robert” does not have any identity at all. He doesn’t go to school every day, getting all the certificates or writing thousand-word essays just get those straight As; but “Bảo” does. At the end of the day, “Bảo” is the one who exists and I want others to know about my existence by calling me with my REAL name.
Recently a Vietnamese-American senator’s name got mocked right in front of his very first bill and was shown on American TV as a joke. The American senator, said “I’d like to know how you get ‘win’ out of Nguyen. I’m going to work really hard to learn to spell and pronounce member ‘new guy’s’ name, and hopefully by the end of this session he’ll be able to spell and pronounce my name”. A white man ridicules a Vietnamese freshman senator publicly in the most racist way ever! He does not even respect the Vietnamese guy enough to learn how to spell his name and makes fun out of it. The thing is, why Vietnamese people can spell “Phillip” or even the complicated one like the Spanish “Enrique” exactly, they can’t spell our names right? And it’s fundamental to know and recognize the fact that different cultures among us need to be respected equally. As I said at the very beginning, names reflect cultures and vice versa. When you become a minority does not mean you do not have the chance to be yourself. I’m a Vietnamese in Japan does not mean I have to carry a Japanese name.
I once heard a pretty funny story about Chinese people add an English name as their first name and then their Chinese last name like “Christina Lee” or “Dennis Wu” or whatever. They blame it on the pressure of Chinese to conform to Western standards. They believe that if they have an English first name, they will be widely accepted worldwide and allow them to be more successful. They are afraid that Chinese names are too difficult for the Americans to pronounce. To me, it’s a fun assumption but quite a shock. People start to give up their own true identities for another Christina or Dennis just to be recognized by the majority. And we all have been promoting the lifestyle of “being different”, “being unique”, “live your own life” whatsoever and it’s all fucked up to me when you go for another name that is not yours for that stupid reason, without giving others the real attempt to pronounce your names right.
I am now going to school with the name “Bao”, which no tone and I’m happy about it. But it would be happier if a person who is not from my own country, can add the tone to my name, which I truly appreciate their efforts. We all want to be exist. We all have identities. And we all want to order Starbucks with our own names. I don’t want to pay for a cup of soy latte under the name which is not “Bảo”.
Some inspirations from Viet Thanh Nguyen.