As long as I can remember, I wore Nguyen like a shirt my mother forced me to put on. I was bombarded by my peers with, “Hey, my cousin said his best friend has the same last name as you. His name is Tommy—are you related?”
During roll-call, my teachers would see a line-up of two Nguyen surnames and sigh like it was a chore to sift through and memorize us. She never did that for the three Smith surnames at the bottom of the list.
My friends would hear any Asian language and ask, “What are they saying?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know that language.”
“Oh, I thought you would. They all sound the same.”
My father would call me and I would respond in English. He would growl, “Answer me in Vietnamese, please.”
My surname always felt like a bag to carry. I was always being compared to so-and-so or some restaurant that bore the same name. I felt the farthest from individual—it constantly felt as if people needed a concept to ground themselves in, before they could fathom, “Hey, it’s just a name.”
From when I was nine until at least 16, none of my friends even knew I spoke Vietnamese fluently. I never brought Asian foods for school lunch because I was terrified to be made fun of. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be just as bad at French as my peers were—even though Vietnam was a French colony for a lot of its history, and in fact, I was pretty fluent because a lot of the words were the same. I wanted to melt into this suburban mesh that I wasn’t designed for.
When we were children, kids would ask if I’ve ever eaten dog. The first thing I would think of was that my Chinese Zodiac sign is the Dog, and it means that I am honest, reliable and considerate. I’d laugh off the joke with those kids and pretend it was funny.
There are even people today in 2018, who ask me, a 23 year old adult, if I’ve ever eaten dog. In Vietnam, there are some beautiful domestic dogs in my friends’ homes, who are adored and coddled. My considerate nature only goes so far—I tell them to go fuck themselves. I don’t know anyone who has ever eaten dog, not even people born and raised in Vietnam. And so what if they did? None of our business.
I hated everything about my surname for a very long time. When I moved from suburbia to Toronto for university, I met dozens of Asian students who were unapologetically so. They brought rice and egg omelettes and watercress to class. They answered calls from their parents in their native tongue. They asked me why I was so ‘white’.
“I thought I had to be.”
The world is raving about Crazy Rich Asians. They’re obsessed with this glimpse into the lives of people they previously weren’t interested in. Representation matters so much; this is a film that celebrates Asian diversity, that celebrates those of us who dealt our whole lives trying to make our names easier to pronounce for someone else’s convenience.
In many Asian cultures, you’re identified as surname, then given name. You’re introduced as “This is Nguyen, Nhi Michelle.” Because your family comes first. Because your story begins and ends with the origins you grew into. I’m sorry to my past self for forgetting that. I’m sorry to my past self for stifling all I could have become because I was scared of what others thought of me.
The truth is, I’m filled with pride to be who I am. It took me a long time to reclaim everything I used to hate about myself. I answer calls alternating in Vietnamese and English. I read in French if I want a challenge. I’ll get bánh xèo whenever I feel like it.
Be unapologetically you. Don’t forgive those who try to demean that. You’re the sun’s first light on Tết, you’re a cart of kêm sold on a hot humid night. You’re you. And you’re worth more than the mould you’re forcing yourself into.