I stared, frozen at the web page my colleague sent me to record the correct pronunciation of my name. All I have to do is record my own words and I will have a link for the benefit of others, but I can’t. I can’t say my name correctly – not in Vietnamese. I think about how the only person who said my name correctly was my mother and how we communicate mainly by text these days. I think about how at work we’re asked to include our pronouns in Zoom, but that doesn’t stop another coworker from constantly being misquoted in all of our staff meetings.
Vietnamese is written with accents – accents – indicating different tones. For me, the diacritics represent childhood. They represent confusion. They represent something that I cannot reach. It’s a change in the pitch of my voice that I haven’t perfected. That’s my entire family history. And so it became complicated to say my name and write it. I am not here to teach Vietnamese to my colleagues. I can not. I can barely pronounce the language correctly myself. It is a gift to be given or earned. My heart warms when I hear Vietnamese speaking with a southern accent. That’s what I’m aiming for.
I started trying to learn Vietnamese recently. It’s interesting how familiar I feel with a language I’ve never spoken comfortably (much less fluently). When my sister was forced to learn English as a second language in grade school, my parents quickly switched to speaking English for the rest of our kids. They didn’t want us to start behind the others. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realizing the language app was teaching me Vietnamese with a Northern dialect. Then I found blogs and YouTube channels that taught Saigon, the dialect spoken in and around the city that my father taught me to call Saigon.
* * *
My dad gave me my name, so I was told. The story goes that his first two children were born and named after Vietnam. Then my mother gave their second two children English names to make it easier for them to go to school. I doubt my brothers did. And contrary to my mother’s fears, I didn’t have a hard time at school because of my name. Am I too quiet to be bullied? Was I too caught up in my dreams to realize the teasing? I will never know. I know that it is not the bullies who have done things like talk to me with fabricated words that are said to have some resemblance to Mandarin or Cantonese. That was done to me by my own friends.
Then this: due to an error in my birth certificate my last name was an accident. Never had a problem when the names on my license and social security card didn’t match. In 2011, when I was adding motorcycle endorsements to my driver’s license, there was a problem. My license says “Vo,” which is my father’s and my last name. However, my social security card reads “Votang” which combines my father’s last name with my mother’s surname, Tang. I drove through town to get an official birth certificate, where I discovered the root of the problem. In the space for them, my birth certificate says “Votang.” A nurse mistake? A slip of my mother’s tongue? I decided not to follow the strings on changing my name on my birth certificate. It sounds complicated when I can go get it fixed and have my motorcycle certified for just extra rides. And so, I officially became Thao Votang.
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My decision wasn’t just fatigue after a day of running from city office to state office to county office. As a writer, a unique name sounds like a golden ticket. In my heart, I don’t want to erase this trace of my mother. My mother’s maiden name and the only connection I have with the family there. I know almost nothing about my family history, as far as I know we don’t have centuries of ancestry, so I try to keep what I have. Her maiden name would be my grandfather’s last name. A grandfather that I only met once, but who is Chinese. I’m not sure if he grew up in Vietnam. I don’t know anything about his life. Another layer of unknowns. A Chinese name is translated into Vietnamese and then turned into something completely different.
* * *
I couldn’t help but be informed that I hadn’t spoken to my father in over a year. I remember his disbelief when he finally understood that my last name was not his. Another family I barely know. He has one sister left in Vietnam. I heard from my mother that he didn’t talk to her, and that all four of her children, my cousins only a few years older than me, were dead. My father sponsored my brother and his family to America when I was at the end of high school. I told them to stop talking. Another brother of his died long ago. The same goes for his parents. I just remember them as a black and white picture on the altar that was present in my childhood home. That’s all I know.
* * *
In her book “Professional Troubleshooter,” Luvvie Ajayi Jones recounts how as a child at her new school in the United States, she chose a name that her teachers and classmates could pronounce. Jones writes, “I feel the need to protect what is a sacred part of me.” Sacred is the best way to express how I feel about my name being spoken in Vietnamese. It’s not something I want to make public with all my colleagues. I have boundaries and my name represents my life and family. The things I have chosen do not offer to most of my colleagues. Over the past nineteen months, I have become more reserved and less enthusiastic.
I know there are positive intentions in all requests: for our pronouns and for our names. But there is a type of woman that I come across at parties that will ask me to tell about myself without asking for any specific details. I can’t really figure out why, but I find myself dodging the question. I find myself questioning whether they use my story in their writing or art as if you could sprinkle variety like pepper. As if my life were a yoga pose that they could stretch themselves into and possess. My fear is based on past anger and pain. My fears are based on what I see around me in the world. I’ve always found myself in a competitive position. Wait for the other shoe to drop. Try to see an injury before it happens.
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There is another type of person who will claim: “I am Irish!” When they drink for the fourth time in the night. That has always made me feel anxious. People do DNA tests and research their ancestors, and for what purpose? To find proof that they are not simply Americans? To add nuance to a whiteness that has been carefully constructed to be admired by others? People want to know how to say my name correctly so they can point it out to their allies. “But what else can they do?” you ask. I don’t have all the answers. I am searching as hard as people are looking for genealogy sites.
* * *
I stare at your website and still don’t move. Asking to record my name reminds me of when I was asked to observe someone else’s blind spot so they wouldn’t have to learn how to see. At these times I think about protecting what is sacred. I think about how I’ve been agonized over and over again at the ongoing hate crimes against Asian Americans, and it didn’t seem important enough for a workplace statement until a woman globally supported. She and I know a saying that can’t heal that broken heart. But she brought in that birth to give me hope.
Can I finally write down my name? Is not. Fashion seems to be fading, just as the energy some people put into DEI work is beginning to fade. But if you ask, I will tell you. What I provide is a version of my name that is not entirely in English or Vietnamese. Just like I am Vietnamese-American, my name is pronounced conjugate. First, there’s that silent “h” – but it ends flat, without the diacritics that make it pop, as if it were a question. I say my last name bluntly without intonation. How would you pronounce a misspelling?
The exact pronunciation of my name is something I haven’t figured out yet. Maybe I’m not quite ready. Maybe once I can calm myself, find that pitch and release the grit I’ve learned in English into my mouth, I’ll be able to speak. And when I get to that point, I choose who I teach it to.
Other personal essays from Salon:
https://www.salon.com/2021/11/13/how-do-you-pronounce-your-name/ How do you pronounce your name?