My name is Elaine, which is derivative of the old French name Hélène meaning “shining light.” The symbolic meaning is quite lovely. But this is just my given Anglicized name. I am not French or white. Before I was even born, my Vietnamese parents chose this name for me—this name that can be easily pronounced without question or confusion, in any place that I should travel to in the United States. This name grants me certain privileges that others with more ethnic names do not have. Upon meeting me in person, people do not make racially colored assumptions about me due to my name.
My name is Elaine Ngọc Yến Lê. It took me nineteen years to fully embrace this.
As a child, I took my name for what it was and with young innocence, I did not question it. Once I learned how to spell my Vietnamese name, my little self would always proudly write Elaine Ngoc Yen Le at the upper left hand corner of all of my homework. This easily became one of my momentary childhood practices. This memory makes me smile.
But as an adolescent, I dropped my middle name from all of my papers. I had witnessed a few instances—too many instances—of other peers with names such as Bích, Phúc, Phát getting teased incessantly. And I did not want to be one of them. I refused to believe that I could be just another outcast (In retrospect, I wish that I could have interrupted the bullying but my concern over my own reputation took precedent—it was some kind of ironic survival mode, one that we thought our parents would have left behind in the War). I quickly learned that my middle name was constructed by American norms to be weird, inconvenient. It was enough to make me want to hide it—the identity that I was too shy and self-conscious to confront.
Exploring my identity eventually became a subconscious challenge for me through my childhood and adolescence. I experienced self-disapproval, loathing even the sound of my name rolling off of someone else’s tongue, a feeling much like the embarrassment and surprise we experience when we hear our voices on the recording of a VHS tape—distorted, fuzzy, strange, unlike the self we think we know, the self we want to appear to others. I wanted to be normal, to have an “American” middle name like Janet. This memory now makes me cringe.
Now I am a junior in college and I am proud of my name. I experienced a particular sense of belonging and self-acceptance in my introductory Vietnamese class last year when we had a discussion about our names and their symbolic meanings. Vietnamese parents give particular care and thought to the names they bestow onto their children—names that reflect qualities and virtues they wish upon their children. Ngọc literally translates to precious gemstone, jade. Yến literally translates to sparrow, little bird’s nest. This name represents the essence of my being, more than I could ever articulate in English. It is deeply meaningful to me and it reminds me of my ancestors who came before me, without whom I would not exist today. It connects me to the traditional value of remembering.
Some Common Vietnamese Names and Meanings
“Phúc” (Phuc) means phúc đức, phúc hậu, hạnh phúc – kindness, merit and happiness.
“Đam”, “Đàm” (Dam) mean yên tĩnh, yên lòng, an tâm – tranquility, calmness, relief.
“Bích” (Bich) means ngọc bích, ngọc lục bảo – emerald, jade (can be understood as both the color and the precious gemstones).
“Sơn” (Son) means núi, mạnh mẽ và uy nghiêm như núi – mountains, as strong and majestic as the mountains.
“Đạt” (Dat) means thành đạt, vẻ vang – success, honor, glory.
“Nga” (Nga) means xinh đẹp, tốt đẹp – beauty, kindness.
“Đông” (Dong) means mùa đông, hướng đông – winter, East.
“Dũng” (Dung) means dũng mãnh, anh dũng – strength, power, bravery.
“Dung” (Dung) means xinh đẹp, yêu kiều – beauty, elegance, grace.
(translations provided by Rb Nguyen)
These are just some of the names—beautiful, strong, meaningful names—that people recreate as jokes and profanities. It is simply unacceptable to laugh at someone’s name—especially an ethnic name, whose beautiful meaning is usually lost in translation to its English phonetics. Teasing someone on the basis of their name is first and foremost bullying. It hurts a very human being. It is deeply insulting, and can cause someone to feel embarrassed and ashamed of their language, heritage, and self. It is disrespectful to an entire culture and its rich history. It contributed to the rejection of my racial identity during my adolescence. I am lucky today to be fighting my internalized racism, to be reclaiming my heritage.
In my twenty-first year of living, I am still at the beginning of discovering myself. Just recently have I begun to dig deeper into the soil that nourished my roots.
by ELAINE LE
Image source: http://slowmedicinedoctor.com/lotus-flower/