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.




54 thoughts on “47

  1. Great post about growing up. I always find it amazing how naive we can be as children, when it comes to fitting in. It is a sensitive time as we all look for our place in the world. My last name is Gould, but it seems nobody had ever heard of that. It was Gold, Gowld and even Good (as in should). Hey maybe they were right. The kids teased me and called me Goldilocks. Fair enough, I used to have lots of blond hair. Now, as a follically challenged senior, I would be thrilled to be called Goldilocks again. It is all a matter of perception and wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A matter of perception is very interesting to consider. So many issues in our childhood are far away and thus, can either be softer in remembrance or something we hid away so long we never dealt with it. Thank you for sharing your new perceptions of it as an adult.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I got ragged on my whole life for using proper English. My black friends say I sound white and my white friends say I’m whiter than them. I use to dumb my language down in high school to fit in better. No longer though. I broke out of my shell and I am who I am. People’s opinions really don’t matter to me anymore. It’s a liberating feeling when you’re finally free to be yourself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is always a little sad too, when you reflect on it. That you stopped being yourself because you didn’t want to be different. It really is liberating to realize: who cares? I’m so happy to connect with you on this common thread–Thanks for sharing, Trey.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fabulous. “my considerate nature only goes so far”—I almost did a spit-take & spilled my coffee. Claiming self is one of our hardest tasks, and I don’t think it ever fully ends, but you’re already a long way there. Another Sunday brightened. One read your posts and thinks “I would like to know that person”, and I’m sure I’m not alone.You’re building a world of supporters,whether you ever meet any of them or not. Thanks …for being. Tinh thần của bạn tỏa sáng, Mark

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I needed something to show that frustration, and it was the first and only sentiment that worked. Thank you for your loving words every morning. Cảm ơn, Mark.


  4. Powerfully stated, Elle. As an immigrant kid of 6 thrown into a foreign school environment in the 50’s it was a painful challenge also. Will people ever change and become automatically accepting, I wonder, or are we doomed to practise racism until the species destroys itself in pointless violence?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. varjakBaby

    I don’t know if it’s appropriate to post this, as it is off-topic, and there’s no reason for saying it now nor is the timing at all triggering it, but: I just wanted to say that getting a like or comment from you feels like winning an award.

    Also I read this and thanks for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really beautiful Elle. Honest, thoughtful, and although it’s probably a perspective shared by many (unfortunately) completely unique. Refreshing this honesty, thank you. I love the concept of surname first, family doesn’t exactly get the same value placed on it here in the new world. One of the first things I want my kids to question is the idea of patriotism/nationalism. It can be tribal, even primal and dangerous to say the least. It’s interesting the confusion around our national identity in these melting pots, the way we express that confusion always seems to be through tribalism and hate. Which is unfortunate because it’s within these melting pots that we actually have a chance to drop this sham notion of patriotism and division and learn to accept and grow together. I hope we can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope we can too, Danny. So many people fear that “melting pots” suggest that we lose our own identity. And I believe that a lot of our nationalism and our own identity is that we are actually melted from others. I hope the future understands that. Thank you so much for sharing!


  7. I loved this a lot Elle. I came to a greater understanding of my friends who have struggled with the same things (my best friend’s last name is Nguyen) – and you’re right! As a teacher at university, I cherish the diversity of my students, but many professors view different languages as burdens and don’t bother to pronounce their student’s names right, Smiths be damned. I always thought that was horrible. A lot of my peers growing up felt pressured to act “white” – I’m from Northern Virginia and we have the biggest Korean population in America alongside a very large Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and Chinese minority in some places and majority in others. A lot of my friends were bullied for being too “Asian,” or too “Indian,” yet accused of “acting white” when they were just trying to survive awkward adolescence and growing up between and marginalized by the media and white metanarrative of America, and a part of two cultures. This piece you wrote gave me a greater understanding of not only my best friends, but also my students, and I thank you for putting your personal journey so eloquently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow thank you so much for sharing! Yes, it really is a tightrope of trying to fit in vs trying to be yourself. I appreciate so much that you’ve reflected this upon your own experiences—it certainly isn’t one in a million of a name, but is still a name. Thank you so much!!


  8. Beautifully honest. I like how you deal with the conflict between two cultures and the prejudices. You also talk about the difficulties of keeping both cultures. To some people you will always be the stranger, the one that left Vietnam and can therefore no longer be a Vietnamese. To others you will be the foreigner in the new English-speaking country. The fact is that you are both and that is much richer than having just one culture. I am glad you have recovered that part of the self you once rejected. Just be yourself, Elle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was born in Canada but still visit Vietnam with my parents, as they were born there. I really am on a cusp—when I go to Vietnam they think I’m ‘white’ but when I’m in Canada, I’m a visible minority. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m happy to be myself, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Seeing you writing about this I am reminded of my own experience growing up. Not with my name but my race, about all the ways I would modulate myself to be seen as palpable, to fit in. But still there was still something different enough for people to scorn.

    I imagine Crazy Rich Asians is comparable to Black Panther for me. While I am not aligned with African culture (I’m Caribbean), to have most of the cast be black, to have their culture respected and celebrated, to have that be a blockbuster and for it to do well!!! It was like coming up for air.

    I’m rambling now but thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was particularly struck by the comments about “whiteness” which have mirrored my own experiences. I’m glad you’ve become more comfortable in your skin. I’m glad you are writing on here, sharing your ideas!

    (I’m sorry for all the notifications as well; I wanted to catch up is all!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing this! I have read a lot about the comparisons between black panther and crazy rich asians and while they may not serve the same purpose in both scenarios, they are still great case studies about the meaning of representation within Hollywood. Thank you for connecting with my work! This idea of “fitting in” is really one that we’ve all felt at one point in our lives. I’m happy to know others who know that feeling.


  10. Elle, this post is more from the heart than all of your other beautifully written posts. You’ve shared your inner self and I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. It’s too bad it took you so long to decide to be who you are. Who you are should never be hidden. Welcome to the world, Vietnamese, French, American, and anything else you’re made of. Loved the post. Stan

    Liked by 1 person

  11. shoniessky

    very deeply and well written! so strong in your words and very noteworthy! As I read I was feeling sadness for the many ways that you have felt in life and also because of the cruelty people are born with and or taught. How awful that must of felt/now to know you had no reason at all to try to fit in any one category ever! I think as people we go through of trials to realize that the person we already are , is exactly what we’ve been trying so hard to be all along or should I say stay! We lose ourselves along the way becoming lost when in reality we never really were. Growth is our best face and will always be. I truly enjoyed reading your story and continue to bloom from the flower YOU ALWAYS WERE!! UNAPOLOGETICALLY!! YOUR FRIEND XOXOXO

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Omg, I wrote a 300 word reply and it didn’t post. Short version , this needed to be said, Vietnam rocks ! , My friend Linh Hoang isn’t related to every Hoang, if westerners would turn off the tv and pick up a book , they would be amazed what they could learn ! I’m sorry you ever felt this way, and sorry for the way my country had become full of judgmental, entitled know nothings, who can’t find Vietnam on a map. Love YOU,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this love! People are people, and while the world is small, we are all separate beings. It’s important to make the distinction and understand that we are all similar and different, simultaneously. Thank you for commenting!!


  13. My girlfriend of many years and I lived in China and other parts of Asia for a couple of years. We met while I was an expat in Hong Kong. When we returned to the US, she tried to prepare me for how people would react. I thought it kind of crazy at the time, but I also grew up in Miami which is culturally diverse, or more so than other parts of the US that I’ve lived. We moved to Texas and it was strange, and the jokes among my associates were often rude and racists. She had so much to be proud of, her family history traced its roots back almost a thousand years, and in her own right, she held a PhD in Physics, yet, somehow she felt less. It took a lot of work to get her through our time in the US, but ultimately, she decided to return home. It’s good to see that you’re embracing your roots and culture, and proud of who you are… keep doing that and I’m sure you’ll be happier for it.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing that story, Brian. It really is a tough line to walk, between assimilating to make it easier, or to stay true to yourself, even if it makes it more difficult for you. She really does have so much to be proud of. I hope she found that strength in her work, and in her own validity. Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. As I scrolled through your posts, something caught my eye in your first sentence. I’m glad it did. I’ve lived most of my 54 years in upstate New York, surrounded by a relatively monochromatic palette of people who look like and have the same history as me. I recognize the ignorance and subsequent racism that you have so eloquently described because in my own ignorance, I’ve been guilty of it. I don’t think of myself as, or want to be, racist.
    It’s the subtle, we’re in the same club, password, joke type of slurs that I encounter daily. Race, religion, color, gender, non specific ignorance demonstrated by people who are not necessarily bad people. I think people have to come to their own enlightenment. You can lead them by example but they will dig in their heels if they feel like they are being forced out of their bubble. Human nature, being what it is, is hard to change.
    My wife is learning Japanese language and we have been watching mostly Asian television shows and movies for the last year. We haven’t seen any Vietnamese shows yet but I will ask her if we can try them. What’s being reinforced daily is that we are all the same.
    Be proud of your history, I am of mine, but we are not just our history.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s