“It’s not Diem – it’s Diane!”
Fifth grade. Mukilteo Elementary. The playground. I was swinging upside down from the monkey bars, legs folded over the metal, talking to a friend who swung beside me. Our hair nearly touched the bark on the ground. It smelled of pine and recess. We pulled ourselves up and jumped down.
“My real name is actually Diane, not Diem,” I said matter-of-factly to my playground pal. “That’s just some Vietnamese name my parents gave me.”
“Oh, ok. I like Diane,” she said. “It’s easier to remember.”
The bell rang and we raced back to class. The alternate name “Diane” never caught on. By the mid-1990s, initialized names were cool and I hopped on the bandwagon. Instead of pronouncing my name “Yeam” which is the correct way to say “Diem,” over time, I pronounced it “DM.” Some time during middle school I fabricated that the initials were short for “Donna Marie.” I did anything I could to appear just as everyone else.
I dreaded roll call. Teachers could never pronounce my name and looked annoyed at me for putting them through the ordeal. As I later learned, I wasn’t alone in my name struggle.
My oldest brother is An — pronounced just as it appears, similar to the girl’s name, Anne. For a brother who was born and raised in the states and had mostly Caucasian friends, this was a blow. At one point, while answering the phone, a person on the other end asked for an “Anthony.” I said there was no Anthony here, until my brother rushed up, grabbed the phone, and began to chat excitedly. He must’ve known where Anthony was.
Years later, when I got married, the issue of names came up again. My husband bears a made-up name. “Rango” was born Ho Le. I don’t think his first name bothered him as a child growing up in Arkansas after his family escaped from Vietnam. But when high school struck, the first name began to weigh on him through taunts and teasing, snickers and silence. He tried the name Scott for a few weeks, Tommy on another occasion. Then a lightning bolt hit him. The perfect name. He watched the 1990s film “Tombstone” — the one about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Ok Corral, starring Kurt Russell. In it, the meanest antagonist of all (this side of the Mississippi), was a character named Ringo. Ringo was a tough-talking cowboy, fast with his six-shooter, and fearless. And cool. A wide-eyed young Ho Le thought that embodied who he wanted to be. Unfortunately, who he wanted to be was misjudged by a letter. He misunderstood the “i” in Ringo and thought it was Rango. Thus, I’d meet a Rango Le, who’d in turn, meet a Donna Marie.
He’d later run into a young woman also named Ho, but with a slight variation in Vietnamese pronunciation. Her English was poor and clearly had little idea her name was a derogatory term. He didn’t tell her. Maybe it’s better that way.
Over time, I ran into several other instances of Asians and Asian Americans trying to win the name game. Some friends of a young man said he had so-called “black features” (whatever that means) and nicknamed him “Jackson.” The name stuck.
Teen cousins from Vietnam who arrived just under a year ago, are changing their Vietnamese names to Western sounding ones in an effort to assimilate and fit in. It’ll make their transition easier, they say. Chuc, pronounced “Troop” will be “Jennifer” while a brother, Tan, will be “Steven.” We shared with them that Seattle is diverse and they’ll run into others with Asian names, so it wasn’t necessary to change it, but they’re adamant.
Ambition was on Rango’s mother’s mind when she named their last son, Richie. Enough said.
Every API has a story about names – it’s really a story of identity. And since identity is singularly a story of one’s own creation, it’s up to each person to consider what story they want to tell.
So whether a person has an Asian name, a Western one, or something in between, it’ll have a role to play in one’s life, the ultimate telling of their personal history. My suggestion is, “Be authentic to you.”
It’s easier to remember.