Every other weekend for the past seven years I drive home from University and help my parents sell pottery. My siblings and I ominously call it “the Store” — as if it takes precedence over all other shopping experiences.
Our weekends are spent mostly rearranging, and sometimes even selling, those huge clay pots that have become all the rage in middle class suburbia.
“Hi, can I help you find anything?” has become my weekend mantra – repeated like a postmodernist farce.
For the most part selling pots suck. The summers are hot, the inventory is heavy, and my mother spends most of her time needlessly rearranging things. It’s not hard to see where my neurotic tendencies come from. Once in a while though, when she’s not busy moving shit around for no apparent reason, she sits down and tells us stories – about Vietnamese history, about our aunts and uncles, about how much trouble we’ve caused her.
She likes to tell me the story of my birth, but always begins with my sister’s. “Your Chi, Hai, popped right out!” she claims, so emphatically that I’m surprised she doesn’t elaborate, “… and landed on her feet like a cat. Started walking home – no joke – and signaled your dad and I to follow!” The ease of my sister’s birth is always contrasted to the difficulty of mine. “Troi Oi,” it begins, “you took twenty hours! What were you doing in there?!”
“Plotting world domination,” I say, only to get a smack on the back of my head.
“Don’t be so stupid,” she says, “save some for the rest of us.”
More than any desire to sell pots, my mother’s stories are what I come home for. There’s something inherently Vietnamese about them to me – in the way she tells them and in the stories themselves. A cultural choice is being made.
When I first came across VTP’s article “Hello, my name is Phuc, A. Bich, or A. Ho,” it reminded me of my mother. Names, she constantly reminds me, aren’t arbitrary monikers in the Vietnamese tradition. They tell the story of a parents hopes and desires, an attempt to imbue a child with the characteristics inherent in the words. In response to Shakespeare’s question, “What’s in a name?” my mother would possibly respond, “The promise of a life yet lived.”
According to a snarky friend, my full name, Hai Tri, means “Ocean Brains.” My parents intentions were slightly different; they wanted my story to be one of a life lived for the pursuit of knowledge, an intellect as vast as the oceans.
I think “Ocean Brains” is more fitting.
But I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
Fifteen years later, however, I was given that choice. In the fall of 1995 my parents gained legal US citizenship. We were Aliens no longer — at least on paper. As part of the process, I was given the choice to pick a more Anglo-sounding moniker. Superfly, perhaps. Or Ooloi.
I decided to keep my Vietnamese name. And although I’m sometimes faced with frustrating situations because of it, I’ve rarely regretted the choice.
It should have been an easy switch. I was tired of hearing the unoriginal “Hi Hai” joke. And even at the not-so-tender age of 15, I understood what having a foreign-sounding name might mean for my future. Years later, my sister would change her name from Vinh to Vivian – how that’s changed the course of her life I can’t really say. But I decided to keep my namesake despite its uber-Vietnameseness and accepted the possible consequences in might entail for one characteristic reason: to mess with people. As my mother can attest, I’ve been doing so since birth. I like to meddle, frustrate, and piss people the fuck off.
But I like to think that my penchant for provocation does something similar to my mother’s stories as well. My insistence on the correct pronunciation of my name isn’t merely grounded in a desire to retain some semblance of my cultural heritage; it’s also an attempt to reveal that heritage, to invoke in a single, glorious utterrance the Vietnamese tradition of naming/storytelling.
Sometimes a name isn’t so much for its owner, but for the person who hears it, who repeats it, and consequently, who recognizes something novel in it. Ultimately, it’s not about the name itself – mine isn’t particularly brilliant – but about what the name does.
As a first-degree troublemaker, I like to go to restaurants and coffee shops and make them pronounce my name. Correctly. When I grow weary of the continual string of butchered pronunciations — “Hay, is there a hay here?” — and feel a little less sadistic, I sometimes give a fake, more Anglo-sounding name. Admittedly, my alter-ego, Billy Bob, isn’t much better. In both instances, I make people hesitant and perhaps a bit uncomfortable.
I’ve learned over the years that my fake name causes as much confusion as the real thing.
It may spare my ears, but still seems to challenge your average hostess’s or barista’s preconceived notions of what someone who looks like me should be called. They sometimes hesitate, sometimes smirk, knowing its fake. But hopefully, I think, they wonder on some level why they react as they do. What is it about a name like Billy Bob that is inherently non-Vietnamese? Or non-Asian? Mostly this is hopeful thinking — people normally don’t actually reconsider their own assumptions when confronted with something strange. Rather, they re-entrench and grow antagonistic, murmuring some xenophobic nugget about foreigners. But if it makes only one person reconsider their assumptions about another culture, Vietnamese culture, than it’s possibly worth the trouble.
On the other hand, I will more often pronounce my name as it was intended. This throws most poor hostesses and baristas for a bigger loop since they’re not used to hearing that extra diphthong. This isn’t (completely) out of ill will, but a desire to have them confronted with an otherness that is at once familiar and different. Most ignore it, scribbling as close an approximation as they can and letting someone else deal with it. A few ask for repeats, and even fewer ask how its spelled, where I’m from, what it means. These last questions display the inquisitive nature necessary to engage with a non-normative other. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve always liked my name, why I’ve kept it. Not for some grandiose sense of cultural identity, but to force others, whether they like it or not, to confront things they may not be comfortable with.
Sure, having an anglo name would make life a little easier. But then it wouldn’t be as effective of a story. Others may see Vietnamese people around, know a few tidbits of Vietnamese history (usually related to the Vietnam War), but those are in the abstract. When asked to address someone in their own language (and that’s what the correct pronunciation of a name does), they’re placed in a position where they must engage with the person in front of them, and are forced to recognize both their likeness and strangeness.
All of that may seem like every little pay off, but it seems worth the effort to me. To have that one in a thousand barista who’s interested, who comes home after a day’s work, and says, “honey, did you know Hai means Ocean or Sea or something like that in Vietnamese? Some guy named Ocean Brains told me.”