Why Do Overseas Vietnamese Adopt Western Names?
This opinion piece was written by an overseas Australian named Thái Phạm (gender unspecified) an appeared in VNExpress.net. We have translated the essay for you below. Please let us know what you think about the practice of immigrants or ethnic minorities adopting Western names. How about foreigners in Vietnam adopting Vietnamese names?
Translated from: VNExpress
A name change can make life a little easier. Moreover, having a name that is suited to where one lives need not mean fully accepting the local culture or losing one’s heritage.
On a number of forums by Vietnamese people there are also debates about this topic of Vietnamese vs Western names. There are those who criticize Vietnamese who adopt Western names, just as there are those who see it as entirely normal.
Recently one of my relatives immigrated to Australia to be reunited with her family. I helped her with some paperwork, including filling out her name and date of birth on some forms. This was the inspiration for today’s essay. Hopefully after reading this you will become more open-minded about this issue.
First let me mention briefly about how Australians write their names. I believe that Americans, English, Canadians, and Europeans write their names the same way also. Australian names consist of three parts: 1) first name; 2) middle name, and 3) last name, surname, or family name. First + middle names are often referred to as "give names", while a "full name" includes the first + middle + last name.
A person named David Trevor Paul Taylor, for example, is referred to by his first name David. Taylor is his family name. Trevor Paul are his middle names. That is, the given names are written before the family name. People will usually call him David, except for more formal situations where he is known as Mr. Taylor.
Names on virtually all Australian forms usually include the two parts: family name and given names. From our example above, this gentleman would fill out his forms like this:
Surname or family name: TAYLOR
Given names: DAVID TREVOR PAUL
Surname or family name: TAYLOR
First given name: DAVID
Other given names: TREVOR PAUL
The term "family name" is used in Australia due to the habit of women taking on their husbands’ family name after marriage. This leads to all family members of the same household with the same last name. Of course, women are free to keep their original family name, or "maiden name" if they like. If a woman chooses to change her name she simply needs to bring her marriage certificate to the relevant government office to make the change in her last name.
So what about Vietnamese people? Vietnamese people write our names similar to Chinese people. That is, the family name is written first and given names are written after. There are also compound names. For example, these names all have two parts: Thanh Vân, Hùng Cường, and Hữu Tài. A number of female names often have "Thị" before them. What is evident is that most Vietnamese names have Sino-Vietnamese roots. The first part gives meaning to the second part. Although Vân on its own has limited meaning, Thanh Vân means blue sky. This is why if we reverse Vietnamese names, as Australian names are written, then we lose the meaning.
Returning to my relative, her name appears on her Vietnamese passport as Phạm Thị Thu Nguyệt. Not a bad Vietnamese name, right? When a new immigrant arrives in Australia they need to apply for a health insurance (Medicare) card. My relative filled out the form like this:
Surname or family name: PHAM
First given name: NGUYET
Other given names: THI THU
When we submitted the form to the Medicare staff, she rejected the form saying that the name had to be written as it appears on the passport despite my explanation that Nguyệt is her first name not Thị. In the end I had to fill out the form this way:
Surname or family name: PHAM
First given name: THI
Other given names: THU NGUYET
Nonetheless, there are cases where administrative staff will accept the correct form of her name. Yet, a given name of Nguyệt is impossible for Australians to pronounce as English does not have the leading consonant sound "Ng". Mostly people will incorrectly pronounce this name as "New-yet", just as "Nguyễn" becomes "New-yen". Now if her first name is written as as Thi, then the meaning of her name has been changed completely.
At my office there is one Vietnamese woman. She had already been working before I started there. Everyone there called her "Thai". In the beginning I also thought her name was Thai until I had a conversation with her and found out that her name is actually Hạnh. On her papers, her name is given as Thi Hong Hanh, but Australians pronounce the name Thi as "Thai".
For a number of people, these stories are minor and not important. They accept the names that others call them by. Similarly, when you are born you have no say in what your parents decide to name you. If you are lucky you will have a good name, and if you are unlucky you will end up with not such a great name. Still, there are those will reject their names being changed so arbitrarily, especially people with really meaningful names like Phúc or Phước. Yet, every time an Australian tries to pronounce these names they end up swearing. Some even avoid any attempts to pronounce these strange sounding names. Phúc or Phước sounds like a very obscene English word.
Therefore, for some people a name change is not out of the question. It can help make life a little easier. Moreover, having a name that is suited to where one lives need not mean fully accepting the local culture or losing one’s heritage. Because people normally only change their given names while maintaining their family names. This way, people are able to keep their heritage. Name changing is evident among ethnic Chinese who live in Vietnam. It can also been seen among overseas Vietnamese in Thailand who have adopted Thai names.
Besides Vietnamese, I have noticed other ethnic groups adopting Australian names to ease interactions. Ethnic Chinese usually do not drop their given names but take on an addition Australian name. I have a Chinese friend from Malaysia. His name at birth was Leung Cheng Siong. Written the Australian way, it is Cheng Siong Leung. When he arrived in Australia he added the name Mark as his first name. His full name is Mark Cheng Siong Leung.
Normally Australians will use first and last names for every interaction and will rarely use middle names. In daily life my Malaysian friend is known as Mark Leung. As for my relative, she is known as Thi Pham. As for her given name Nguyệt, it is no longer mentioned. Now there are also abbreviated names, such as Bob for Robert, Dick for Richard, and Bill for William. I still remember Australia’s prime minister during the 1980′s who was usually referred to as Bob Hawke. In the news and on TV he was known this way, but not many knew his full name on his birth certificate, Robert James Lee Hawke.
At my work there is an Australian named John Wilson. He is very friendly. During a conversation about immigrants to Australia, he told me that he was of Belgium heritage. When his paternal grandfather immigrated to Australia he changed his name to Wilson since Australians could not read his name. Thus, even Europeans have had to change their names out of convenience.
There are many other issues when it comes to name. For Vietnamese, there are only a handful of family names, such as Nguyễn, Trần, Lê, Đinh, Phạm, Phan, and so on. On the other hand, given names are countless. Europeans are just the exact opposite: they have a multitude of family names but few given names. A large number of people have given names from the Bible. I know one Greek family who has a tradition of giving children names of their grandparents. For example, if a grandmother is named Alexandra, then her granddaughter will also be given the name Alexandra. Americans have a practice of naming sons after the father with the addition of "Jr." at the end.
Some Vietnamese children born in Australia have been given Australian names. These are just given names as their family names are still Vietnamese as usual. Others are given entirely Vietnamese names. However, Vietnamese names should be carefully chosen so that they can be correctly pronounced, such as: Mai, An, Nam, Kim. And never choose difficult names like: Phước, Kiều, Đại, and Đạm; or names that have negative meanings in English such as: Dung, Loan, and Bích, among others.
There is a saying, "nhập gia tùy tục, đáo giang tùy khúc" (When in Rome do as the Romans. Literally translated as: “When visiting a family, observe its customs. When sailing along a river, follow its meandering”). If you adopt a name where you are living for convenience and to make life easier, you are not denying your roots and have not loss your heritage. Names merely serve to distinguish one person from another. What is important is starting a new life. Every year, the register of top Australian graduates always include Vietnamese family names Nguyen, Tran, Le, and others, despite given names like John, Julie, and Tina. Australians still recognize that these are Vietnamese or Asian students. In my opinion, living in Vietnam with a Western name would be unusual. In contrast, there is nothing odd about living in a Western country with a Western name.