I Have One Of Australia’s Most Common Surnames, But No-One Can Pronounce It
Nguyen is second only to Smith in the Melbourne White Pages, and the seventh most common family name in Australia. And yet people still struggle to pronounce it correctly.
Those are just a few of the ways I’ve heard my surname mangled by well-meaning Australian friends and strangers.
I’ll admit it’s only recently that I’ve begun to pronounce it correctly to non-Vietnamese people – for a long time, I didn’t want to inconvenience or confuse anyone. When they asked what my name was, I said New-en – it was less complicated for them, even if it made me uneasy.
When they asked what my name was, I said New-en – it was less complicated for them, even if it made me uneasy.
The apparently confounding surname has weaved its way into pop culture, too, with the title character on BoJack Horseman struggling with the “stupid, impossible-to-pronounce last name” of his ghost writer, Diane Nguyen, and the popular satirical YouTube channel PronunciationManual carefully enunciating con-gru-yen, sending up just how bizarre some of the versions people cook up are.
So many times people have asked me if I’m related to another Nguyen they met (would you ask the same of a Smith?), or regaled me with tales of Vietnamese bakeries they’ve seen emblazoned with my surname. Nguyen is the seventh most common family name in this country, yet it’s a mystery to most how to pronounce it – and many don’t even bother trying, laughingly putting it in the “too-hard basket”.
It’s an issue many people from non-Anglo backgrounds face when integrating into Australian society – the same issue that makes my mother introduce herself as Amy to strangers, rather than her real name, Aiminh (pronounced “I’m in” – not exactly rocket science). It’s this pressure that pushes immigrants to Anglicise their first and last names, performing a public separation from their cultures in order to appease Anglo-Australian society – to fit in, to get ahead financially and socially. “We are the same as you,” it says. “Our pasts, our bloodlines, are disposable.”
Australia’s history towards non-Anglo people – whether immigrants or Indigenous – has hardly been kind. Though we’ve come some way since the days of White Australia and assimilation policies, and now proudly tout ourselves as a multicultural country, there are certainly still ingrained prejudices that affect people of colour – or indeed, anyone outside of the white Australian “norm” – on a day-to-day basis.
I was given the name Giselle when I was born, though only my Vietnamese name, Au-Nhien – the name my family calls me – appeared on my birth certificate. As a child, I often invented middle names for myself, always in English, because it made me feel more like the people around me. Giselle Ebony Nguyen. Giselle Sylvia Nguyen. It all rolled off the tongue so easily, and made me feel like I was glowing white from the inside out. If only it was all different so no-one would notice the colour of my skin, the tanned shade of my real name.
I was proud to be a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
As soon as I turned 18 I changed my name legally to Giselle, because it was “easier”, and shifted Au-Nhien to the middle. I was proud to be a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I always knew, somewhere deep down, that my peers respected and liked me more than the international students we studied alongside, because I was more “like” them; because I didn’t pose any threat of difference or change.
Experiments in which fictional resumes are sent out to potential employers just affirmed my youthful decision. The results showed that jobseekers with non-Anglo-sounding names had to submit more applications in order to be offered an interview (64% more for Middle Eastern names; 68% more for Chinese names). According to the study, immigration lawyers often recommend Anglicising names, omitting country of birth and only mentioning language skills if necessary on job applications.
This bias is a major indicator of structural, everyday racism in Australia – as though people are somehow less desirable because of perceived differences that may not actually make any difference at all. The “advice” provided echoes the sentiments of the archaic assimilation policy – if you want to fit in, you have to change yourself in order to do so.
The Australian continent has been inhabited for over 50,000 years, with only 229 of those years in its current, Anglo-centric incarnation. The Smiths and Joneses of the country are technically immigrants, too, yet there is no such difficulty in integrating smoothly into social ranks and customs, nor any pushes to be “more Australian”.
As I learned more about my culture and felt closer to it than ever, I wanted my roots to be visible. So from last year I began using my full name – including my Vietnamese name – in my work as a writer. Both of these names are who I am. My writing often addresses identity, so how could I be true to myself in my work if I’m only showing half of me?
Using my full name is a defiant statement about myself and my family – who we are and where we came from. I don’t care if my name makes you uncomfortable, or if you have to work to pronounce it. It is a part of the fabric that weaves the intricate tapestry of multicultural Australian identity – of my identity. Often people leave my Vietnamese name out, even when I’ve clearly asked for it to be included, and have to be reminded to put it back in. Would you show the same disrespect to an Anglo name?
If you eat our foods (it’s fuh, by the way, not foe), watch our films, travel to our homelands – all things that enrich your cultural palate – it’s not hard to learn to pronounce our words and names properly.
In 2014 Orange is the New Black actor Uzo Aduba shared a story from her childhood in which she asked her mother if she could be called Zoe instead of Uzoamaka. Her mother refused, replying, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka."
And it’s true: if you eat our foods (it’s fuh, by the way, not foe), watch our films, travel to our homelands – all things that enrich your cultural palate – it’s not hard to learn to pronounce our words and names properly. Immigrants have made huge efforts to integrate into Australian society, including learning an entire new language and culture – it’s only fair that the effort is reciprocated.
Have a conversation. Ask people how their names are pronounced. Don’t immediately write it off as too difficult – the subtext of that is that we aren’t worth the effort we’ve put in to be a part of this nation with you. As a kid, I was scared of making people uncomfortable, so I let it slide, and even changed my own ways. As an adult whose heritage burns brightly from my core, I want to be recognised and respected for the complex, bicultural Australian that I am.
For the record, it’s Ng (like the end of "swimming" – hold your mouth to that shape)-weir-en. Nguyen.