What was it like to grow up in the U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s with a Vietnamese name like Bich?
Here’s an excerpt from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen, who moved to Michigan with her family as a 1-year-old in 1975.
In Vietnamese [Bich] meant jade, which was all well and fine in Vietnam but meant nothing in Michigan. It was pronounced with an accent tilting up, the tone leading almost toward a question, with a silent h. Bic! I hated the sound–too harsh, too hard, and the c so slight that it evaporated in the air. I preferred to hear it as Bit. The sound seemed tidier, quieter. So that’s what I made my name over to be, and it was fine until my classmates learned to read and swear. By second grade I was being regularly informed that I was a bitch. I started fantasizing then about being Beth, or maybe Vanessa or Polly. I longed to be Jenny Adams with the perfect simple name to match her perfect honeyed curls. […] I felt I could judge the nature and compassion of teachers, especially substitutes, by the way they read my name. The good ones hesitated and gently spelled it, avoiding a phonetic pronunciation. The evil ones simply called out, Bitch? Bitch Nu-guy-in?
Bich wasn’t allowed to use an American name, but other kids she knew were allowed to:
Their parents were anxious for them to fit into Grant Rapids and found the three quickest avenues: food, money, and names. Food meant American burgers and fries. Money meant Jordache jeans and Izod shirts. Names meant a whole new self. Overnight, Thanh’s children, Truoc and Doan, became Tiffany and David, and other families followed. Huong to Heather, Quoc to Kevin, Lien to Lynette. Most of the kids chose their own names and I listened while they debated the merits of Jennifer versus Michelle, Stephanie versus Crystal. They created two lives for themselves: the American one and the Vietnamese one–Oriental, as we all said back then. Out in the world they were Tiffany and David; at home they were Truoc and Doan. They mothers cooked two meals–pho and sautes for the elders, Campbell’s soup and Chef Boyardee for the kids.
In primary school, Bich knew one other Vietnamese girl, Loan, who also continued to use her original name. They became friends.
Bitch and Loan, some of the kids said on the playground. Hey, bitch, can you loan me some money?
Nowadays, Bich Minh Nguyen tends to go by the name Beth.
I wonder what proportion of the Vietnamese-American kids in Bich’s generation went by an “American” name outside the home. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any data on this, have any of you guys?
Source: Nguyen, Bich Minh. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir. New York, Penguin: 2008.
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