Thảo Thái Nguyễn. Thảo: “Respectful of parents.” Thái: “Wise, convenient, to indicate peace.” Nguyễn: Well, it’s arbitrary and has a history to it — but it’s a generic, popular Vietnamese last name. People have told me that my name is catchy or flows well, but when it rolls off their tongues, and even my own, I find it hard to feel something for it or agree with them. I respond to it out of habit, I mean, it’s my birth name and what everyone calls me. Well, for the most part.
I grew up in a fairly white, suburban type of town. Diversity hadn’t quite reached us yet, but my parents thought it’d be a good place to raise my brother and me.
My brother is about nine years older than me. I have a blurry memory of my childhood, but I had a sense that there were always feelings of an identity crisis. I figured there was always a loss of culture, as well. What does it mean to be Asian American? What does it mean to come from a Vietnamese family?
One kid, one teenager and two immigrant parents. How do you raise these children to be Vietnamese but also American?
Given that I was younger and was able to see the diversity develop in my town, I had a better experience growing up compared to my brother’s. I faced less of the bullying, the ignorance, the lack of understanding between cultures and different backgrounds. I still felt the impact, but moreso, I felt the aftereffects of my brother’s experiences.
I think I also felt more of a connection to my parents than my brother did. I initially never thought much of the little or big things they did; that was just who they were and are.
My brother, on the other hand, was developing a more conflicting and clashing relationship with my parents. I was easily influenced and wondered what my parents were doing wrong for my brother to feel the way he did.
Sometime before the start of kindergarten and leading into elementary school, my brother was stuck with the responsibility of babysitting me or essentially being my third parent. This meant, occasionally, if he wanted to hang out with his friends or go out, he had to take me along.
Jennifer. This is your white name. Introduce yourself to my friends as Jennifer. And little Thảo didn’t understand the feelings that would eventually come out of accepting this small change in her life. She just took it as it was, no questions asked.
Then came the bits and pieces of my own identity crisis. White names were normal names. Vietnamese names sounded so foreign, so why was my name Thảo?
When being dropped off at school, I immediately felt some type of change as I stepped out of the car and my parents’ presence to walk on to the campus.
I crossed into another path, diverging away from my brother’s experiences and walked into another part of my life that I didn’t know I would end up facing. Slowly, I lost my ability to speak Vietnamese. I began speaking only English and became more of a resentful and rebellious kid toward my parents.
I was stuck at a cultural crossroads.
I was definitely straying away from Thảo Thái Nguyễn. But what else could I go by? Then came the list of names. Compiling and compiling, I’d take note of names that I thought were easy to say, no need for explanation and, well, white or American.
I’d repeat a different set of names to myself in front of a mirror, hoping something would just click. But the click never came, and I never accepted myself. Acceptance never came, leading to me constantly feeling ashamed almost everywhere I went — except for at home when my parents were just being themselves. I’d listen to them speak Vietnamese, and I felt sad for not being able to respond to them in Vietnamese.
I guess this was the beginning of my Asian American consciousness, the start of many attempts to try to distinguish myself from my respective Asian culture and living in American culture.
Middle and high school flew by with teen angst in addition to the identity crisis. The people who knew me as Jennifer were no longer a part of my life, but the name still stuck.
Starbucks orders? Jennifer. Random uncomfortable encounters? Hi, I’m Jennifer. Slightly turning my head when someone calls the name Jennifer. Subconsciously, I was still Jennifer, even if I didn’t know who Jennifer was.
I looked up to my brother as a role model, someone to construct and define my own identity after. I never thought about how much he struggled with his own identity and how he didn’t have a model either.
Both of us had to grow up. We moved to different places and met different, diverse communities.
We learned how to be more comfortable and accepting in our search for identity. The resent of having to deal with two cultures turned into a reflection of not only ourselves but of the other Asian Americans we met and the families we all come from.
I know I’m not exactly Jennifer; she’s just a part of my life, and I’ll always carry her with me. I am, however, still learning each day how to be Thảo.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected.