“Your parents didn’t immigrate halfway across the world for you to mispronounce your own name so it fits better in someone else’s mouth.” - Nikhil Kapur
My name is Jennifer. You probably read that without thinking twice about it. Nobody has ever asked “Could you repeat that?” or “What does that mean?” when I tell them my name. No teacher has had to apologize to me on the first day of school, going down the roll call, saying “Sorry, I’m about to butcher this…” and hesitantly eek out an unfamiliar word in harsh American r’s and long a’s, the last syllable going up in a question mark. Some of my classmates and friends knew when their turn was coming. They’d listen for a distorted pronunciation of what their moms and dads thought was a beautiful name, and then raise their hands, ready to clarify, ready to watch the teacher make a note in her book and follow up with another apology. But I didn’t have that problem because my name is Jennifer. An American name for an American girl.
That’s what my dad was thinking when he named me. He knew he would always be a foreigner no matter how well he spoke English or followed the rules. So he gave me the name that seemingly every other baby girl born in the seventies and eighties had, because he wanted me to be as American as these girls were, to have everything they would one day have. This name has opened the door to easy introductions in every situation; whether it’s a professional or social or drunken setting, there is nobody who cannot say my name, very few who cannot spell it without my help, and I never need to repeat it. And with this ease of use, I have been given validation. People look me in my eyes and say my name.
My dad’s name is a different story. American people cannot pronounce his name. Only Vietnamese people with an intimate relationship with the language can say it. My dad’s name is Quang. The Q is silent. The A is short. I have heard half a dozen bastardized versions of it from those who do not know, who pronounced it so poorly that at one point my dad took to introducing himself as Juan. His identity is a source of confusion to others, and, if I were to venture a guess, one reason he has never felt at home in the four decades since he came here. People yearn to be accepted, to feel a part of their communities, and names are a core part of that acceptance.
Names are not arbitrary. We aim for whiteness in order to be desired, to be hired, to be respected. This is true about hairstyles, skin color, speech and so many personal markers, including names. Luis becomes Louis and and Xiao becomes Stacy. Foreign students adopt new identities in order to make it easy for their new peers and for themselves. Whether born American or recently arrived, Western names give a more palatable identity in the eyes of many, one that can be easily understood and identified with those whose status we aim to reach.
When my dad gave me an American name, he sought to give me an American identity. Sometimes I wonder if I’d feel differently about myself had I been known by a Vietnamese name. Like many of my Generation 1.5 peers, the balance between two cultures is one that must be constantly negotiated. In recent years I have come to admire people from other countries who keep their own names, and even more so when they give their American-born children names from their motherland. It appears to me an act of defiance, a refusal to shed evidence of the roots they carry.