What is in a Name?
My full legal name is Valerie Tú-Uyên Nguyễn. The sad part is, I didn’t know how to correctly spell my name until last summer when I went on a heritage trip with my mother back to my family’s country of origin: Vietnam. When I say, I didn’t know how to spell my name, I mean that I didn’t know where the unique accent marks went - though a small detail, it is the only aspect that separates the Western language from Vietnamese. I was taught to “conform,” “assimilate,” and “anglicize” myself to this new world.
Vietnam is a country that historically has been colonized by other imperial powers of the world such as China, Japan, and France. Yet we have overcome each power with even greater strength, resilience, and courage. Each time, we incorporated new ideas into our culture without losing our own heritage. For example, the notorious “Banh Mi” that everyone loves takes the classic French baguette and stuffs the insides with Vietnamese fillings like picked carrots, cha, lemongrass, etc. Though it is a feat to maintain our own story and heritage while remaining open-minded to new ideas and incorporating them into our culture, it is hard to differentiate what is authentically and solely ours.
Thankfully, reflecting back a year after my trip to Vietnam, I realize my parents have always tried to incorporate Vietnamese heritage into my upbringing. They wanted to ensure that I didn’t forget my roots despite being “seeded” in American soil instead of the Vietnamese one that they grew up in. From our family weekend outings to the Eden Shopping Center in Falls Church, Virginia (the 3rd largest Vietnamese Epicenter in the U.S), to celebrating two New-Years every year (Tet and the January 1st), it was clear that my Vietnamese culture was an integral part of my upbringing all along.
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Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge my privilege in speaking about my heritage trip to Vietnam because I am lucky to know my family’s full story of origin while many of my Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Undocumented peers do not. My experiences do not fully encapsulate anyone else’s but mine and I am not trying to compare my insights to anyone else's.
I also want to make it clear that my thoughts are not by any means trying to be ALL “Anti-white” or to single out any specific white person. Rather, I hope this insight helps the white community to be more cognizant of their actions as a whole moving forward. I value individual people and do not let “one bad apple ruin the whole bunch.” I am not a spokesperson for the whole Vietnamese-American or the Asian community, but rather these thoughts are my own that might or might not be relatable to others.
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Last summer, after my Vietnam trip, I went through a nationalistic surge and wanted to change my middle name to my first name. This was an act of rebellion. My whole life, I was ashamed of my Vietnamese heritage and wanted to be “white.” For starters, I still remember being racially profiled and automatically placed in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program in the 2nd grade, despite already having a scholastic reading level of a 5th grader. In high school I took Honors and AP English classes (and I must humbly admit that I only excelled in them). It was clear from the start that my physical appearance as a Vietnamese with Black hair and “yellow” skin has always been more important than my actual merit abilities.
Since elementary school, my mother had always woken up at 5 A.M. (an hour before work) just to home-make my lunch from scratch instead of reusing leftovers from dinner the night before. My lunches were always much more exquisite than the norm and required more effort than a single smear of PB and J onto dry wheat bread. However, I always took my mother’s efforts for granted because it wasn’t what my white peers were doing. I was mocked and made fun of because my “nuoc mam” smelt “weird.” This followed me through middle and high school, where all my white peers had the then trendy, quilted Vera Bradley lunch boxes. At that age, there was nothing more that I wanted than that lunch box. I was excluded from the lunch-circle because I didn’t have a lunch box or lunch that matched everyone else’s. In 7th grade, I sprayed Hydrogen Peroxide on my hair and purposely sat outside in the sun hoping for my hair to turn blond even though my mother always told me how beautiful my luscious Black hair was from the start. Still, knowing all of this, I persisted to choose whiteness over my Vietnamese heritage.
I hated my last name “Nguyễn.” In grade school and even in college, my name was butchered and no one made the effort to ask me for the correct pronunciation. People used to call me “Ng-oo-yen” or “Ng-guy-en,” when it’s literally pronounced as just “Win.” As a result, I told people to refer to me as “Valerie N.” to save the trouble and discomfort. However, if white Americans can pronounce Arnold Scwharzeneggar, why can’t they learn to pronounce my last name that is 10 letters shorter? Does it not matter because I’m not white or a celebrity, or does it matter less because I am a person of color?
During my trip to Vietnam, I visited the town of Hue, the site of Vietnam’s ancient palaces and where my father was born. One of the main attractions is the Nguyễn palace. The Nguyễn dynasty was the last imperial family of Vietnam, and it established feudal rule over the largest territory in Vietnamese history. Maybe I have some royal blood in me? It was empowering to finally realize that I grew up on the backs of giants and that my name has more meaning than the butchered pronunciation I grew up hearing.
I still feel weird when people ask me if I’ve ever heard of Amy Winehouse’s song Valerie or sing it to me out of endearment. This is because I know in another world that it is just a placeholder with no real significance other than the fact that my mom just liked the name Valerie. Symbolically, it serves as a sign of assimilation. To this very day, when people correct me for anything relating to the English language arts, I have an internal conflict, trying to differentiate whether it is an attack on my Asian-American identity, or if it’s just constructive criticism of a common mistake. While I know that I can’t change my yellow undertones, or the fact that English wasn’t the only language that I grew up with, I realize that I still have the gift of time and an internal drive to reclaim what has always been rightfully mine.
Fast-forward to today, I intentionally sign all documents requesting my personal identification with my full name as an effort to remember the accent marks that I’ve denied the entirety of my life. I challenge myself to only respond to my parents and individuals of Vietnamese descent in Vietnamese. Whenever my mom leaves me notes in the morning before work, I always request her to write it in Vietnamese instead of English. This is difficult for me because I didn’t take a formal Vietnamese language class growing up, so I am forced to Google and teach myself the words that I have always heard around the house.
I seek out every opportunity I can possibly get my hands on to understand my heritage on American soil. While my heritage trip home was pivotal to my outlook on life, I don’t want it to just end there. Even incorporating my personal background into my academic studies, I have made the active effort to take advantage of every opportunity to learn about my heritage. When I had my hair balayaged this past year I emphasized to the hair stylist to NOT turn my hair blond under any circumstances but rather to highlight it in a way that accentuates my natural Black Vietnamese hair. While I had previously spent my life discouraged from embracing my personal heritage, I am thankful that I still have the opportunity now to learn and reclaim my roots.
Valerie Tú-Uyên Nguyễn is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both an Innovation and Carolina Scholar, she is majoring in Biology (B.S) and Medical Anthropology (B.A). During her spare time she enjoys painting, writing, hiking, and spending time with loved ones.