What's in a Vietnamese name — or rather, who?
Take Thanh Le, the man. A software engineer, he spends his days creating programs for a crop of companies dotting Orange County.
Thanh Le the boy goes to Westminster High School. He is immersed in
the mysteries of quadratic equations and finding a date for sunny weekends.
Thanh Le the mother comforts her asthmatic son and cooks him noodle soup.
She is the glue that
binds her brood together.
The trio illustrate a commonality in the Vietnamese culture: Few names are exclusively masculine or feminine. In Vietnam, which has more than 70 million people, there are only 100 family names, with a handful that are found frequently. These include Le, Pham, Tran, Truong and especially Nguyen — which is so common that Nguyens ranked No. 1 among Orange County's homebuyers in 1998. They also led the pack five and 10 years before that, helping to explain why Vietnamese immigrants often are not called by their surnames.
Middle names are generally used to distinguish Vietnamese men from women. Many first names have meanings, and parents like to pick ones that reflect ideals or aspirations. For example, Trung is for fidelity, Hung for courage. A Vietnamese woman often keeps her own name after marriage, though the Western practice has prompted some to hyphenate their names. A desire to fit in in America pushes some refugees to completely change their names.
Consider the case of Tuyet Dieu, a Fullerton college student now known as Whynter. Not for her the usual spelling of the word that describes the season. She wanted something unique. Why not keep her birth name? Her grandmother chose it, inspired by Bach Tuyet, or Snow White, a singer once popular in the old country. But her grandchild, living in the land of plenty, found possibilities galore.
Dieu, 23, says: "I wanted to change. People butcher my name. And it's difficult to pronounce. But at home, they call me by my Vietnamese name." The Le trio — not acquainted with one another — are perfectly happy with the names they were given. Immigrant Dung Tran was not. At work in a post office, he was asked why he didn't want to switch to being a Bob or a John. A dictionary search showed a negative meaning for his moniker. So he looked in a book of names.
And unearthed a gem: Obert. Why Obert? It is supposed to mean wealth or prosperity. He had studied accounting and he said Obert, naturally, "was a good fit." He proudly took on that name when becoming a U.S. citizen in 1992 and used it on his driver's license. Later, he dubbed his little girl Hilary, meaning "cheerful," after the first lady.
"It's very common for people to change as they assimilate," said Buster Sussman, a marketing specialist whose clients are primarily Asian-Americans. "Mainstreaming is a process that many immigrants experience," said Sussman, whose real first name is Barnett. "People, no matter where they are, usually want to fit in."
Coming to America, many Russians shortened their names, he said; many Jews did the same going through Ellis Island, or had it done for them. At various immigration checkpoints, officers who did not understand a person's name or thought it did not sound right in English suggested changes, Sussman explained. Or perhaps the names had too many syllables.
Names in Vietnam are monosyllabic. Most Vietnamese have the surname of one of 16 royal families who ruled their homeland. In chronological order, they are: Thuc, Trung, Trieu, Mai, Khuc, Ly, Phung, Kieu, Ngo, Dinh, Le, Tran, Ho, Mac, Trinh and Nguyen Bao Dai, the dynasty's last emperor, who abdicated in 1945.
Cultural history reveals various reasons for having these last names: A person may be an actual descendant of a royal family. To show loyalty, some voluntarily changed their names to that of the ruling dynasty. An emperor may have granted the use of his name to reward his subjects. A family may have been forced to change its name, especially when new royals took over the throne, their rise achieved by force or political manipulation. Then, people having the same name as the previous rulers would be pressured to drop it, wiping out all references to the old reign and reducing the threat of insurgence.
Nguyen was the last dynasty in power before Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces took control of North Vietnam in 1945 — shortly after the United States' atomic bombing of Japan. That helps explain why there are so many Nguyens. Historians say more than 5 million Vietnamese answer to Nguyen. Locally, 166 advertise in the new edition of the Vietnamese Yellow Pages, from bakers and doctors to jewelers and mortgage brokers.
Tu Nguyen, who runs a hair salon, changed his name to Ryan Winn, making
his surname as close as he could to the way Americans pronounce it. Others
substituted N'Guyen for Nguyen. Folks in Little Saigon tell stories of
Nguyens becoming Nugents. Dr. Jim Nguyen of Placentia
shed one common family appellation for another — Tran, his mother's maiden
He remembers going to medical school in Pomona and constantly hearing, "Dr. Nguyen, paging Dr. Nguyen," over the hospital intercom and never knowing which Nguyen was being called.
"It was so frustrating," he recounted. "Even though my name is still common, at least there are less Trans than there are Nguyens." Just over 2,500 Trans are listed in Pacific Bell directories for Orange County, compared with more than 6,500 Nguyens. Then there's the proverbial John Doe — or in this case, John Do. Folks joke about his name every day.
"I get people saying, 'There's actually a John Doe?' They say I should find a Jane and get married to her," said the Costa Mesa telecommunications worker. His real first name is Tung, but he replaced it with his saint name, for simplicity's sake.
Others opt for originality. In Vietnam, it's taboo to name a child after an immediate family member. It's considered a sign of disrespect. So forget the juniors. Vietnamese parents copy from songs and domestic appliances. One popular tale is that of the Seattle woman who, in searching for that memorable label to carry her through life, spied the washer and dryer. Thus was born Westinghouse.
Son Kim Vo, director of the Intercultural Development Center at California
State University, Fullerton, says mothers and fathers also translate from
Vietnamese to English. Take those with kids named after flowers. Hong then
becomes Rose, Hue becomes Delphinium. One refugee
hunted high and low for a name for his son, she recalled, eventually hitting
The man was known to say: "I've been working as hard as a buffalo."
Buffalo stuck. Vo, as of 1987, is also officially Margaret Vo on her citizenship papers. Vo's niece, Chau Bao Thi Nguyen of Westminster, three years ago decided to change her name. Her father would drive her, then a third-grader, back and forth to the library, where she pored over a pile of books of names. Little Chau settled on Stephanie, for as soon as you meet a Stephanie, derived from the Greek name Stephanos, you just know you are in for some fun, she said.
Her parents objected. The Vietnamese language does not have words with "s" followed by another consonant. So a Vietnamese person would find "st" hard to pronounce. She decided to be a Stephanie anyway. Louise Lambert, who coordinates citizenship education at Catholic Charities in Santa Ana, understands the tendency toward name changes. When a person is always explaining how to pronounce his name, it's easier just to change it, Lambert said.
The former Truong Nguyen, 36, never even thought about changing. But in 1998, before signing a citizenship document at the Los Angeles Federal Building, a clerk warned: "This is your last chance if you want to change your name." The guy asked Nguyen if he wanted to be Rambo (Sylvester Stallone's "First Blood" was a box-office hit then). Then he suggested Nguyen take on Tyson, in honor of a real boxer. "I didn't want to be a Rambo or a Tyson," Nguyen recalled. "But at that time I liked the movie 'E.T.' "
And Truong penned in director Spielberg's name — Steven. In Vietnam, the sources of given names are varied: They can be inspired by birds like Loan, a phoenix; by fruits like Le, a pear, or Nho, a grape; celestial bodies such as Van, a cloud, or Nguyet, the moon. Seasons also play a role — Xuan for spring, Thu for autumn.
Middle names can allow individuals to track a particular branch within a family when all of its male offspring carry the same middle name. Same goes for female offspring. Some common middle names, with accent marks, distinguish men from women. Van is always a male, Thi always female.
That also goes for the Le trio. Thanh Le, the Garden Grove engineer, has the middle name Cam. The high school boy from Westminster is Thanh Van Le. The Santa Ana housewife is Thanh Thi Le. Though actually, in Vietnam, a person's name is read, written, or pronounced in this order: surname, then middle, then first. "It can be confusing for Americans," said Thanh Thi Le, the mother of two boys named Duy and Duc. She's thinking of the name Sean if she has a third child.
As for Thanh Le, the engineer and cellist whose passion is making music — what will his kid be named? "Michael Jackson," he says, laughing. "Perhaps Yo-Yo Ma or Julio Iglesias."
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