My name is formed from a collection of wishes that was never mine. Thao for filial respect, the daughter who’d never think of moving hundreds of miles away, the one who never forgot birthdays or missed a Sunday lunch. Phuong for beauty, the smooth-tressed woman who swam in grace and never dared to walk the neighborhood in house slippers. Thai, a means-nothing-really name inherited from my father, the Shadow Man, the abandoner of families. My last name has a particular bite, tragic irony compounded in one guttural little syllable. I’ve always kept morbid artifacts around, like splinters that jag just beneath the skin’s surface.
For me, names have always been doors into identity. I thought a rose by any other name would smell like crap. Secretly, I kept a litany of beautiful names in my mind, turning them over in my head like water-smoothed stones. They came from books I read. Jo-Meg-Beth-Amy. Anne. Sara. Matilda. Laura. There wasn’t a Thao in any of those books, not even close. When I began to write short stories under the covers with my flashlight, I wrote them with a pen name. I created worlds and I recreated myself.
I studied my classmates, with rainbow names that clicked off the tip of my tongue: Jennifer and Tiffany and Robin. Girls whose steps were lithe and strong. Girls who lived in sunlight, not shadows like me. I imagined their spaghetti-and-meatball dinners, church youth groups, cute canopied beds where they slept like princesses. I’d scribble their names in my notebook, the way some traced the names of their crushes. I didn’t want to date them; I wanted to be them.
One June, when I was ten, my mother married my stepfather in a rain-soaked ceremony that drew out swarms of mosquitoes. They crawled under layers of tulle, found the delicate flesh underneath. My mother’s wedding was a melding of worlds: his Italian-English family in pastel suits and my Vietnamese family wearing jewel-toned ao dais. Amidst the damp canapés and sparkling cider at their reception, my mother told me she was planning to hyphenate her last name with his Anglo-American one. Women in Vietnamese culture don’t typically take their husbands’ names, and she’d be the first in our family to do so. She hadn’t taken my father’s name all those years before. I remember thinking how odd it would be to refer to her by a new name. I’d gotten good at forging her name on fake P.E. excuse slips.
In her white, puff-sleeved gown, my mother seemed like she was shifting into a new version of herself. That was the power of a name. My mother, now a wife. My mother, now only half-mine.
When we began our citizenship process after her marriage, she said I could change my name if I wanted. Many newly minted citizens did. Around me, I saw Tams becoming Tammys. Hoas were now Helens. In my class at school, as the result of a veiled family scandal, a girl named Crystal suddenly emerged as Morgan. I studied her as she walked into school, her hands clasping her backpack straps. She looked the same, but — yes, there was an imperceptible switch. A new burden of being.
I asked her what it felt like to change her name.
She shrugged. My mom said I was always supposed to be a Morgan.
A name as a sort of reclamation, then. A destiny. Who was I destined to be? I rummaged through my secret trove of names, the ones rooted from storybooks and television shows throughout the years. In the end, I knew I could love being a Christine. It was my favorite name; one that I used for multiple dolls. Christine the first and Christine the second, ill-proportioned Mattel clones in sky-high heels. My version of Christine felt like she would belong, with bouncy hair tied up in a scrunchie, white tennis shoes that never tripped over sidewalk cracks. Christine, smiling up at P.J. Walker, sun-tanned idol of Abel Elementary, staying up too late at slumber parties. Her life sparkled like sunlight off a pool.
Mom, I said, I’m going to be Christine.
She scrunched her face. Okay, why not. That’s a pretty name.
There was no resistance on any front, which was unprecedented and mildly alarming. For once, my grandparents had no opinions to offer. After my mother remarried, I still lived with them part-time, dividing my week between their house and my mother’s new one with my stepfather. My grandparents, staunch traditionalists and avid killers of fun, demanded I only read the classics (Sweet Valley High, with its teen-intrigue covers, was hidden away at my mom’s house). They thought Melissa Joan Hart was a hussy. They wouldn’t let me eat sugary cereal, because it was too American. But changing my name, the very foundation of my Vietnamese identity? Not a single eyelash batted.
I daydreamed about announcing my new name to my friends. I’d say breezily, You can call me Christine Crawford now. I liked how it sounded like supermodel Cindy Crawford’s name. Nevermind that I still wasn’t allowed to wear a two-piece; with a name like that, Sports Illustrated lay wait in my future. My mother was pleased that I’d be taking my stepfather’s name. It was another carefully laid brick in the family unit she was building; our second chance at it all. Would my new name fit me awkwardly or slide on like a second skin? I couldn’t sleep from excitement.
Yet, sometime before the citizenship swearing-in, where my name change would be legally approved by a judge, unease crept into my anticipation. I was jittery whenever anyone called my name, as if I knew it may be the last time I’d hear it. Bent over my Mead notebook, I scribbled Christine, with hearts over the i’s, naturally, then crumpled up the paper. Seeing the name in my handwriting made me inexplicably uncomfortable, like I was committing another forgery. I imagined my grandparents using my new name, struggling with the consonants. R’s had always been difficult for them. Imagining them unable to pronounce my new name felt like a sponge in my chest. It soaked up my eagerness.
I never loved my name, with its propensity to confuse teachers, the short syllables that felt like coughs, the inevitable teasing it invoked, but over the years, it shaped itself around me, like an inherited house that you made your own. I’d always thought I could never live up to the promise of my name, all the wishes stuffed in my newborn soul, but somewhere along the way, I couldn’t feel comfortable in any other.
When I told my grandparents, they shrugged. Your decision.
My mom grinned when I talked about how our conversation went. They couldn’t stop asking me about it. Every night, calling to see if you’d made your choice yet. You think they don’t care about your name? Let me tell you the story.
She said I was born in the middle of the night, in the wet season in Vietnam. My father hadn’t been around for awhile; he was up to his usual shadow-magic, vanishing just as you thought you’d had a grasp on him. Neighbors called around for him, ducking in and out of smoke-heavy bars, but by the time my mother’s contractions began to speed up, he still hadn’t appeared.
My mother labored with her sister and my grandparents around her, willing herself to forget the stillborn daughter she’d given birth to just a year before, and her absent husband who was nothing but a whisper on the wind. When I was born, she was exhausted to the point of forgetting who she was. Grief and joy battled in her, shrouded by persistent weariness. She handed me to her father, my grandfather, the steadiest man we both know.
You name her, ba, she said.
I picture him staring down at me, his tremulous hands touching my newborn brow. He chose my name immediately, like it had been held in his mouth, ready to emerge. To him, filial respect wasn’t about a selfish desire to control one’s offspring. It became a way to connect our family through the pain. Thao is a layered name, extending past respect or courtesy, into something like honor. Honoring your family and yourself. Honoring that which is dearest in me.
And so my name was a gift, as much as it was a wish. In all my yearning, my craving for another identity, I eventually became rooted in who I was. I was warmed by the glow of love that haloed me as I took my first breaths and beyond. Now, I feel the reverberations of my family’s love every time I write my name.
Fifteen years after I became a U.S. citizen, I married my husband in front of a lake. The intense heat made the air seem to ripple around us. My halo of love was there too. I didn’t change my name then either. It wasn’t a big decision like it was the first time; it really wasn’t a decision at all. Loving my name and its history had been hard-won, and I felt inextricably tied to it now. I couldn’t let it go. And, perhaps, I also didn’t want to sever my last link to my father, the Shadow Man whose absence helped illuminate the ones who never left. If we hold it long enough, a name can be a pathway back to what we have lost.
These days, I celebrate my friends who have changed their names, choosing new families to tie themselves to, finding their way to genders that have always felt true. Changing one’s name is empowering, full of hope. It’s often a symbol of new beginnings and self love. Keeping your name can also be an act of love.
The other day, our daughter nonchalantly called me by my name. She was trying to reach a book on a shelf.
Can you get it for me, Thao?
I was taken back, hearing my name on her lips, instead of the usual Mommy or Mama. I asked, Why did you call me Thao?
Her lips pursed, annoyed. It’s your name, isn’t it?
Before our daughter was born, my husband dreamed of her. He saw himself standing by a pool. A little girl with my eyes and his wide grin ran up to him, flicking water droplets everywhere as she reached for him. She wore a ruffled bathing suit. Her name entered his head then, like a whisper. She could be no one else. We named our daughter after a dream, which is, after all, not so different than a wish.
Our daughter’s middle name is my grandfather’s name, an echo of his first gift to me. She proudly bears my husband’s surname. In her three-syllable first name, we created room for her to evolve, to create dozens of nicknames if she wishes. To go by an initial. To go by something totally different.
These days, she’s someone different each morning. General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance. Owlette, flying kid-vigilante. Princess Tiana baking mountains of beignets on the bayou.
What should I call you today? I ask as we get ready in the morning.
The cogs in her brain whir. It’s as if she’s picking out a dress from a spinning rack.
She says finally, You can call me Queen Rose.
I’m delighted by her shifting identity, her wide exploration and the way she embraces all the many facets of herself. But usually, at bedtime, she returns to her own name. It’s like home, after a day of far-flung adventuring.
If one day, she decides to change it, I will applaud her courage and self determination. If she keeps it, I will celebrate that too. A name is nothing so momentous in the grand scheme of things, and yet, a name is everything. It’s the measure of who we’ve been, and who we yearn yet to be.
P.S. You can read more of Thao's beautiful work here.