What’s in a name? On food names, full names & Vietnamese names

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A while back I was listening to NPR and a brief story came on about using aliases at Starbucks (or any other food/coffee joint that asks for your name). After hearing the story, it occurred to me that it’s high time to post a piece about Vietnamese names and the desire to, nay the sheer necessity, of using aliases for some of us. My name is Thuy and its pronunciation does not sound like its spelling so I’ve taken some shortcuts by adopting the food-name, Tina. Not particularly original. Not meant to be funny. But it does save me some time in getting my soy latte order through.

Hung Liu, "Resident Alien," oil on canvas, 2008. Used totally without permission. Look at the name on the ID card.

In my family, most of my 8 siblings have adopted different names from the ones given them by our father. But my younger sister and I doggedly clung to our Vietnamese names despite the family pressure to choose new ones for our post-citizenship life in the U.S. Lucky for my younger sister, whose full name is Kim Xuyen, Kim can seamlessly become her public moniker. My full name, Thanh Thuy would hardly serve me as well. In fact, these two names are joined together on my drivers license and other legal documents, so that the three h’s all in one name bewilder folks who have to check my I.D. I sometimes just feel bad for the poor schmuck who has to try to say my name out loud.

For other Vietnamese Americans who have remained loyal to their Vietnamese names, I have heard that taking on an alias can lead to some fun. Just picture a Vietnamese gal giving the barista “Guadelupe” for her name. But, what if sometimes it’s a manuever you must take to avoid derision or disbelief? What if your name is Bich Chi Ho? Or Dung Do (sorry, anh Dung, I had to put it in!)…I am certain readers can think of more Vietnamese names that just do not sound pleasant when westernized. Even an easy-to-say name like my older sister’s, Hong, loses its poetry when misspoken. So I can understand why she ultimately decided Kelly would be an ideal permanent fix; meanwhile those who know her and can say her Vietnamese name with its poetic cadence become part of her inner-circle, her private Vietnamese world. The decision is  personal, it can be political, it can also just make plain practical sense. You can change your name legally or you can just take a food-name every so often. You can continue giving your children Vietnamese names or give those up completely for the trendiest celebrity-inspired names like Jaden or Shiloh.

When I filed for U.S. citizenship and finally reached the last stage where I had to give up my “Alien Registration” card and swear my allegiance to America, I decided for myself (and without judgement towards those who choose to take on an American name) that Thanh Thuy is the only name I can live with–unless of course I am in a rush to get that soy latte.


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  1. After my divorce I wanted to take on my Buddhist name for general consumption, rather than go back to my maiden name. “Gnushang Ghyatsho” (Tibetan for “All Good Ocean” ) didn’t give me uplifting sense of ease I’m seeking. Went with Biển. Frequently referred to as Ms. Bin or Ms. Bean.


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