Current Affairs

Hello, my name is Phuc, A. Bich, or A. Ho

At the end of 2009, the New York Times ran an article titled “Whitening the Resume” in their “Week in Review” section.  In it, writer Michael Luo discusses a growing tendency among African Americans to “whiten” their job applications by removing elements with clear ethnic origins from their resumes, in hopes of improving chances at a callback or interview.  For instance, one of the persons featured in this article was a woman named Tahani Tompkins.  To make herself sound more accessible to potential employers, “instead of Tahani, a distinctively African-American sounding name, she began going by T.S. Tompkins in applications.”

As with any issue regarding assimilation, this is probably not a problem that African Americans alone face. The example of feeling the need to make more palatable one’s name particularly struck me as something that might seem frivolous but could actually be indicative of a real, understated problem.   For Vietnamese, it’s true that as far as ethnic names go, we don’t have it too bad:  we have names like “Kim” and “Van” that fit snuggly onto an American tongue, and we have names like “Nguyet” or “Quang” that might look a little tricky, but are still pretty manageable pronunciation-wise.

But then we have those names that can be too easily mispronounced for the worse.  Names like Ho (which can sound a lot like an insult if not spoken in sets of three, in Pirate speak, or in the context of gardening), Bich (just one letter shy of a female dog) or Phuc (phonetically, looks a lot like the queen mother of all expletives).

I’m not trying to make fun of any of these names by drawing these comparisons, but I know having a name like “Dung” or “Dang” makes you vulnerable to cheap shots and bawdy jokes.  For instance, in the hit 2007 summer comedy Superbad, there’s a scene where some sleezy cops are talking about the awesomeness of the name “McClovin.”  On the topic of names, one officer chimes in, “I once met man-lady who was legally named ‘Phuc’”—except this officer pronounces “Phuc” the c-k preceded by f-u way.  His partner in jokes then goes, “Yeah, I think he was Vietnamese because of the ‘ph.’” I’ll admit it was a well-executed joke, but it’s an example of how Vietnamese names can be easily become the butt of a joke.

So what to do if you have a name that is sure to inspire a slew of puerile insults at least up through fifth, maybe sixth grade?  Change it?  This actually seems to be the route that many Vietnamese are taking, not just those born with Phuc-Bich-Ho names.  There’s nothing wrong with changing one’s name per se, because changing a name is always a personal decision.  You might go from “Ngoc” to “Natalie” just because you think the latter sounds better, or you might go from “Phuoc” to “Frank” because it’s easier to introduce yourself to a potential business associate that way.

However, it’s the extent to which these name changes are happening that makes me ponder they’re necessity.  I know a lot of people who’ve gone their whole lives with a very Vietnamese name with no problem, and then over night, they become Carols, Johns, or Keiths.  I wonder what makes these people want to go through the trouble of paperwork and reintroducing themselves to everyone they know for the sake of a new name.  Do so many of us really all hate the way our Vietnamese names sound so much that we have to change?  Or are we all doing this to fit in to the mainstream society better?  If it’s the latter, then is it really so necessary to change something as basic as your name for the sake of assimilation?

Personally, I think not.  I used to hate my name (Anh) because it’s so Vietnamese, and people were always pronouncing it in funky ways.  But these days it doesn’t matter so much anymore. I realized that if people respect you as a person, they’ll learn to pronounce your name the way you want it.  And if a person can’t even do that much for you, is he or she really even worth being around?

So Phucs, Bichs, and Dungs of the world—relish your names, and others will come to respect it too.  There’s a special meaning behind all Vietnamese names—just see all the responses OneVietnam got when we asked our Facebook fans about their Vietnamese names on April 12 if you want to know what I mean.  And, maybe Hong will never be as popular as Holly, or Minh as popular as Mindy, but who gives a hoot?  Vietnamese names are fine the way they are.

I know a lot of people never encounter the dilemma I’ve mentioned because your parents gave you American names at birth, but would you ever consider giving your own children Vietnamese names?  Would you ever forego the American-first-name-Vietnamese-middle-name pattern a lot of people have adopted?  Or, if you’ve changed your name, why did you decide to do so?

36 responses to “Hello, my name is Phuc, A. Bich, or A. Ho

  1. this is just so true. i even remember on family guy, they made fun of the name Nguyen, where Brian pronounced it Nuh-Goo-Yen. FAIL.

    I suppose I am glad my parents gave me an american first name & a viet middle name, & i hope to continue that with my kids. I don’t find it abandoning my heritage or anything, I mean all my family & viet friends know me by my viet name.

    1. Say what! Who cares what people think of your name that says who you are, and your name is what make you a wholesome person of origin. I just want to say fuggg this particular article that is so wrong to persuade people to change their native name. American is a melting pot and so is the working place, and there is no point of changing your name but, yet assimilation is not about changing your name. It is about your culture, value, and respect. This is bs to be telling other. Take this article and shove it up yours. Fugg ya. Be proud of yourself and don’t take any crap from the media.

  2. Very well-written article, Anh Ton. I once had a manager ask me if I had a middle name that they could call me by. I replied, “Yes, but I would prefer if you would call me by my first name.”

    Down the road in our children’s generation, this conversation won’t be something we would even think about.

    Perhaps one day, the “Heathers” or “Christophers” of this world may like to be called “Tuyet” or “Mei Lee” or “L’Abana.”

  3. People call me Mr. Dang at work. My co-worker once said that my name sounds “gangsta”. For those people that have problems with their first name (like Phuc, Bich, Ho), they can go by their English name. But a Dang or a Ho for the last name is just … no cure. Haha. Excellent article! Why is it not being posted on our facebook page?

  4. great article, Anh! I”m a Phuc too! But some how when we came over my name was written Hong Phuc….so Hong became my legal first name on my SS card and now I’m a Hong to every nonVNmese but Phuc to everyone else 🙂

  5. @Uyen: I felt the same way and was upset for awhile that people couldn't pronounce… changed to American name. kind of regretted it though. would rather keep it. felt like I miss part of my personal identity. i do agree that changing names is a personal decision. Personal identity is developed through so many various social and personal aspects….

  6. What a great article. We adopted our son (he is Vietnamese) and were surprised by how many people 'expected' us to give him a western name. He has a beautiful Vietnamese name that we love. The thought never crossed our minds to westernize it. We hope, as he gets older, that he is as proud of his ethnicity as we are!

  7. What a great article. Our son is Vietnamese and we were surprised by how many people 'expected' us to give him a western name. He has a beautiful Vietnamese name that we love. The thought never crossed our minds to westernize it. We hope, as he gets older, that he is as proud of his ethnicity as we are!

  8. War had torn our nation apart and it affected the lives of VN people in many ways. Many of us came here trying to "fit in", to have normal lives, and to move on. I do not think many of us change our native names because we are ashame of our identity. We are proud of who we are and the long history that we have. If changing my name to increase the chance of bringing food home, I'll change it. Even if I had to change my sex to feed my kids, I'll do it. It has nothing to do with shame.

  9. great article!I also go by my Vietnamese name even though some people ask me if it's pronouncing like"cow"=.= Still i respect the people who have changed their name into American way bc just as you said " changing a name is always a personal decision".

  10. I love my name, even if no one can pronounce it and even if Vietnamese people think it odd that I have 2 (Phuong Dung). I'm half Vietnamese, so it really confuses people when they hear my name. I can understand why someone might change their name to assimilate but you should be proud of it, no matter the culture.

  11. Plenty of food for thought here! For my 60+ years, I am or rather my name is a picture of pure as . . . snow, but definitely it is hard for the people of the several dozen countries I have been to. I even have a poem starting with “Just don’t look at my face . . . it’s bee-r-oh-double-you-and-ann . . . “ and there you have it. This was to a man who had had so much difficulty spelling my last name, just because he couldn’t reconcile with “Brown” going with an Asian face! In deed, it’s a personal decision and the level of comfort one enjoys with the “whitening” of one's name. As a Catholic from birth, I surely could have used my saints name, but for many reasons I didn’t, and have little regret about this decision.@ Chau Anh Nguyen: my humble opinion is that changing one’s name to something easier to pronounce/remember has little to do or not to do with being “prideful of the Vietnamese culture”! :-(@ Hong Pham: that’s a below the belt shot for someone so well . . . h[ ]ng! ;-)@ Thao Hoang & Brandon Duong: completely agreeing with yr sentiments about . . . not exposing oneself for people to take a potshot at one’s name, and “insist that . . . names be pronounced correctly”, including the last names!!Last but not least, here’s another can of worms: what do people think of Vietnamese calling Westerners by Mr. James, Ms Natalie . . . ?? And BTW, Western names also have meaning other than “just a name”!

  12. Haha. Fun article, what about the opposite? Vietnamese American names that Vietnamese people CAN'T promounce….like…Mikey becomes My Khi (my monkey), Mark becomes Mac, Rachel becomes Ray-Cho (which is somehow more Asian sounding now). etc.

  13. P.S. Tuyet. It does not bother me if someone calls me Mr David. But I don't really hear that often. Is it wide spread? I think the bad thing about addressing someone like that is that it is historically portrayed (at least in the movies) as how one who is subservient would address someone of a higher stature. For example, "Miss Scarlett or Miss Daisy." And to the extent that such an interpretation might still persist (and it probably does), I think it should not be used.

  14. @ David Regenold: exactly! I cringe whenever I think of the usage with "Miss Scarlett . . . " connotation, tho, Vietnamese in VN don't mean it that way. It's the very "cultural confusion" of which name comes with the (surname) title! Similarly, there are folks in Gawd's land that will have no clue when addressing someone (even news reporters!!) such as Mistah Nguyen, Mr. Le and Mrs. Tran!! (imagine quoting someone in the news as Mr. David, Miss Barbara!!) I have to disagree with you (just a bit) about "stick with what your parents gave you" though — it's NOT about the . . . vogue!

  15. I think this is the common experience of any folks who go to the US from the non-English speaking world. In the 19th century when the bulk of European emigrants fled famine and war in Europe for the safety of the USA, they adapted to circumstances. In fact, in the case of Ireland, the mother country also discarded the Gaelic language for English and the old surnames for the sake of modernization – just like those Irish who went to the US. That's why my name is Dermot Quirk, not Diarmuid Ó Cuirc – and why there was a US president called J.F. Kennedy – not S.F. Ó Cinnéide. And why you are called Kerryanne O'Reilly – not Ciara Áine Ó Raithille ! These new names are easier for English speakers to pronounce but they are still Irish:-)

  16. You're still Irish and We're still Vietnamese. Preserving our own cultural values is still important. Family and organizations like OneVietnam Network still play a crucial role. @Kerryanne, My parents change their names when they became US citizens and so are lots of my friends. Many, if not most, younger Vietnamese parents here will give 2 names for their children. I still keep my name and gave my kids only Vietnamese names. That's my preference and if they want to have their own American nicknames when they grow up that's ok with me too. What I'd like is "Hey, my name is Mike Vu or whatever Vu. I am a Vietnamese and I speak Vietnamese!"!

  17. there are only 6 million people in Ireland – but between 80-100 million people worldwide of Irish descent. Biggest Irish populations are in the USA, UK, and Australia – but also in many other countries. There is an Irish community in Argentina that has still kept it's identity and traditions over 100 years since leaving the mother country.

  18. @ Phuong Vu- thanks! That makes sense- I guess if our son grows up and decides he would like a more western nickname, that would be okay. I hope not, but it's his choice.@ Dermot Quirk- this is all true! My dad immigrated from IRE, grew up speaking Irish and my first name was the first from his family to be Americanized.

  19. Phuong Vu: I think if we were born Vietnamese we will be always be Vietname and nothing will ever chance that. It does not matter what type of name stamped on the forehead. Mike, Dung, Dan, Johny, Jen, Hien, Nguyen, Le… whatever names, we are still Vietnamese.

  20. It could be the other way around if Vietnamese culture is respectable and our language is known widely like English. Say, “concat” (short for concatenation) it means a male reproductive part. I think the world has given into the “white wash” culture. They taught us to think that they are superior than we are. I think it’s a matter of insecurity and not standing up to them….teach them to correctly say our name like they forced us to learn their culture and language. Hmmm…once you have money and power they’ll learn how to say your name right 🙂 Kiss up, kick down! Soar losers…the winner takes it all. China rising…watch out white people…you’ll all have to learn Chinese and maybe Vietnamese 🙂 All Empire will end and new one will rise. The Roman, the Mongo, Incas, Mayas, Ottoman and many more.

  21. Definitely love this. I've never encountered anyone that asked me to change my name, or I have but it wasn't serious, it was joking around. Everyone calls me Phuong (even if they can't pronounce it) but that's what I go by.

  22. just watched Freakonomics regarding this topic. There was a study conducted where two identical resumes were submitted for the same job. The only difference was an ethnic name versus an easy-to-pronounce American name. Guess which received more calls from the employers?

    While it’s great to stick to our cultural identity, when you move into a country, you must think what’s best for your job and your kids’ chance of employment in the future.

    My parents insisted that we stick to our roots and do not change our names. The result? my sister got teased so much in school while I am frustrated because my Vietnamese name is so unique that even Vietnamese people cannot pronounce it. The meaning behind my name is butchered each time someones says it.

    Therefore, I’ve decided to change my name to an American name for employment while keeping my Vietnamese name as a middle name. Look how successfully the Chinese have adapted to America, many of them have changed their names yet they’re still culturally rooted.

  23. Right or wrong, immigrants to America have been doing this for a long time in an effort to adapt. Certainly not just Vietnamese. My grandfather came to America from Sweden as Hugo Ljungberg (pronounced more like “Young berry”). He threw in the family name and took on his brother-in-laws last name because it was more pronounceable. Never looked back, and he was about as “white” as they come ….

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