Thursday, March 13, 2008

The story behind my *real* name.

This post is dedicated to JAM, who asked why my "real" name is not like my "pseudonymous" name--e.g. it is not "Isabelle" or for heaven's sake, "Brandy." Dude. Please.

[aw]Begin heartwarming immigrant narrative

I was given a Vietnamese name, Oanh. It is like "One" but not. There's a different way of pronouncing the "Oa" diphthong that is hard to trasncribe here. It is definitely not Oh-ahn, or Oona, or Oh-nah. Damn it, you Americans and your language deficiencies and cultural insensitivities. Anyway, my family always added the diminutive -y or -e suffix to us girls' names, so I was called "Oanhy" growing up. All my siblings type that up in their emails to me, and I sign off with that name in my emails to them. All my nine nephews and nieces call me this. Yes, I am 27* years old. I'm also of quite the cute personality (back me up here, folks who have met me), so it mostly fits. I imagine that it may be weirder when I get middle aged, or not. My oldest sister, Trang, was given the nickname "Be," meaning "young child" by our grandmother before she died. To this day, at the age of 45, she is called Bebe.

On the first day of kindergarten, my teacher, Ms. Noonan, asked me what my name was. I didn't really know how to speak English at this point. I didn't learn English until after I started school, and I didn't go to pre-school. I somehow escaped ESL, and as a testament to immersion and the American melting pot, grew up to be the English literature major and aspiring law professor you all know and love. But at any rate, at this stage, I had trouble communicating even my own name. So I tried to tell her my nickname, tried to pronounce it for her, and tried to to even spell it, which was interesting. So I got stuck with "Wahnee" for eleven years. 'Round junior year of high school, my parents realized my name was unpronounceable to most people, and made an appt. with the courts and the Social Security administration to have my name legally changed without telling me. About a week before I had to go change it, they told me, and so I had a week to pick my new "American" name.

People, when you choose your own name, you cannot go all up in that. You can't choose a name that means "immortal genius" or "most beautiful altar" (e.g., Arabella). You also shouldn't be too greedy with the syllables. I wanted something short (four letters, like my real name), simple, poly-syllabic but not greedy, feminine, not-too-common, and sensible and smart. It had to pass the are-you-a-stripper-or-are-you-a-professor test. Although I didn't really think this through then, I knew it was a name I wanted to see in print, at least on the top right corner of term papers. Things have worked out--I am happy to publish under my name, at least with a disambiguating middle initial to differentiate myself from all the more accomplished Vietnamese doctors. I didn't do as my parents suggested and keep my initials by sticking with "O" names, like Olivia. Olivia is just...not me. And don't even get me started on Oona. I hate Oona.

So, that's the story of how I got my name. I had a week to decide. It is a short, simple name. It is pretty, even if some dudes-of-yesteryear have it. It is sensible without being too serious. True, it descends from a male cognate, and that's a little annoying, too. But at least I don't sound like a stripper.

I imagine that my parents just forgot that I would be stuck with my name when they gave me my name--when my mother was pregnant, there was a tree full of singing birds outside our two bedroom (for 8 people) apartment. So she gave me a name that means "songbird." That I can't sing worth a damn is a bit tragic, but I still love that story, and imagining my mother at the age of 39, starting a new life in America after leaving an entire life destroyed by war in Vietnam.

Most of my siblings changed their names when they took their American citizenship tests at the age of 18, and so I guess my parents thought that would be the time when I would "fully assimilate." But I was born here, and already a citizen, and so I was born with one name that reminds me of my origins, but allowed to change to another name to signal my adult transition into being a full-fledged voting participant of the country of my birth. I kind of like that.

I also like that I was spared the horror of being named "Cindy" just because my mom liked the Brady Bunch and I was the youngest girl of six children: three boys and three girls, the youngest one in curls. Heaven help me. I am NOT a Cindy.


End heartwarming immigrant narrative
.[/aw]

*For some reason, I originally typed 28. I did that thing that my dad does when he refers to me and my age, counting the time in the womb. WTF. I guess I am not American enough after all.

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