My parents gave me the name Bich-Ngoc after a beautiful greenish jade stone when I was born. They wanted people to know that I was as precious as jade. To them, I was a gem in the midst of a life filled with limited opportunities. My dad, a prisoner of war, was trying to rebuild his life again after a gruesome battle. Yet, life was not kind to him and my family struggled to survive financially in a country that was also in the middle of rebuilding itself. So, they named each child with a meaning of hope in order to dream of a better life. A life that they believed could put more choices on our plates. That dream became a reality when my family was given the chance to move to America.
I was eager yet nervous to start the first day of kindergarten at my new school. During roll call, my kindergarten teacher glanced at my name with a puzzled look. Without much thought, she called me by what she thought was right. “Bach Knock.” The kids in the class laughed at that horrific sound that was meant to be my name. My five-year- old mind tried to wrap itself around this foreign sound and the cruel laughter that came with it.
“Why were they laughing? What could I do to change it? That was not my name.”
The sound that came out of her mouth was not what I heard at home. The noise that came from her blended consonants and vowels did not make me feel like the precious gift that my name meant to make me feel. Without the language, I couldn’t even put the words together to stand up for myself. A place that was supposed to provide me with opportunities, unfortunately, now limited a major part of who I was. I readjusted my mind to accept that people around here were unable to pronounce the sounds of my language.
After a year of learning the English language, I knew that people could learn to pronounce things correctly. I decided to start first grade with my actual name and made sure to correct the teacher if she did not pronounce it accurately. My name finally came on the roster during roll call; I was ready. The sound that came out of her mouth was “big knock”. I raised my hand and pronounced my name accurately and emphasized every syllable to make sure she could say it. Her first effort was nowhere near what my name was supposed to sound like. With each attempt, I went slower and slower to fight for the voice that I lost in that kindergarten class. Again and again, she could not get the sounds right and eventually gave up. The ownership of my name was once again taken away from me. I felt defeated and helpless trying to fight another incident when I had no control over who I wanted to be.
Even after that, I was still determined to reclaim that part of my identity. My resolution was to change my name to a more American-sounding one. During a trip to Michigan, I told my Godmother to call me by my American name. I wanted to declare who I was through my name and not by the sounds that others can only utter. I contemplated on a name that could clearly reflect and represent who I was. Consequently, I decided on “Jenny” because a few of the Asian American girls in my class had that name. While making s’mores on that trip, my Godmother called out Jenny to validate me. I didn’t reply. She yelled out, again and again, the same unfamiliar name that I desired to have and yet I did not answer. That night, she asked me why I requested to be called something that I did not identify with. She was right. I was not a “Jenny”. Nonetheless, my identity was still not affirmed.
After that incident, I selected a name that made me the most comfortable. In Vietnamese culture, there is always a house name that was different from the legal name. I felt like the name my parents had given me at home, Ngoc, truly showed my identity. I reintroduced myself as Ngoc to my friends. Unfortunately, I was once again faced with defeat when my friends could not pronounce my name correctly. The closest sound I got was “Knock”. Eventually, I accepted that name even though it still did not embody who I was. I came to accept the fact that I cannot reclaim that part of my identity.
On my first day of teaching, I promised myself to regain my sense of self that was once taken from me in the very same space. I showed my students my name and explain the origin, pronunciation, and meaning of it. Through my mini-lesson on names, I wanted my students to see how a person’s name could symbolize identity, history, and other aspects that were beyond just a word. When it was time for attendance, I read down a list of familiar names on the roster until I saw a unique name. I opened up my mouth and tried to say it but the image of myself in kindergarten class came to mind. The memory of not being able to find my voice to correct the teacher made that feeling of helplessness resurface; the cowardice I felt because I accepted a name that did not define who I was.
That one moment ripped away the identity that took me years to reclaim. I cannot let my voice overshadow the voices of my student. I showed my students the name and asked for help with the pronunciation. That student emphasized each syllable multiple times until I got it correctly. The class cheered in joy when I finally got the sound of her name right. I told my students that whether I could pronounce their names, I wanted each of them to own and say their names.
After class, we talked about the origin and history of her name. She told me that she appreciated that I took the time to affirm who she was as an individual through her name. That moment made me smile.
Over the years, I recognize that it is not my responsibility to teach people Vietnamese. Even though the “ng” sound makes it hard for many people to articulate my name, I cannot let people seize that part of me by mispronouncing it. Nevertheless, I still need to recapture the beautiful sound of my name that exemplifies my existence and character. I want to pronounce it correctly so that people know that part of me.
I want to reclaim the ownership of my name and that unique part of my identity. This is my name; this is who I am.