What’s in a name?

I’m one of four daughters, and we have such ordinary names: Loan, Nga, Phuong, Chau. By ordinary, I liken them to Bob, Alan, Laura, Ann. I asked my mother about this — knowing that my father didn’t have a say — begging for an explanation of why in sweet Jesus’s name that she’d neglected to give us prettier names. She said it would be vain to do so, and God would punish such vanity by giving you an ugly daughter. She cited several girls in our neighborhood who had pretty names but had faces that were “bored to death” to look at.

Phương vs. Phượng

Phuong means “direction.” At least Kanye West and Kim Kardashian named their daughter North to specify a particular direction. And Phuong without the dot under the name is more of a boy’s name. If I just got that extra dot, my name would mean phoenix, a pretty big deal bird. So, I grew up wishing I had a real girl’s name. I wanted one of my girlfriends’ names which were of exotic flowers and birds and of cardinal virtues.

Then I arrived in America, and it got a lot worse.

I had to tell people how to say my name. Most folks put emphasis on the “o” sound, and upon hearing me say it, they would overcorrect and emphasize the “u” sound. I was always flattered that they even bothered to try. (I also had my last name Nguyen to contend with: Newan, Negyan, Wen, Noogen, Noowen, Um-no.)

Phuong was usually misspelled as Phoung. I get it, most English words have –ou instead of –uo, like pound, ground, loud. And mousse — not the chocolate kind that you eat, but the copious amounts that went into my perpetual perms.

Whenever I ordered food at a counter and was asked for a name so they could call me when my order was ready, I would give some random name, like Julie or Amy. That only worked if I remembered what random name I’d used. One time I forgot what name I’d used — because it was a long wait, okay? — so when no one came up to the counter to get the brown to-go bag when the server beckoned, Julie, your order is ready, I walked up and asked, “What exactly did… Julie… order?” This charade went on for longer than necessary.

Then, freshman year at Centennial High School in Gresham, Oregon, my classmate Tim — tall, brilliant, handsome — scribbled something next to my name on a piece of paper. I had to look at it closely. He added –us at the end of Phuong. Tim smiled as if he’d invented recess, “Fungus!” Phuong-us. Of course.

That marked the end of Phuong for me. I don’t remember exactly how I came up with Fawn. I knew I wanted to replace the Ph– with F– because why use two letters when one suffices. I wanted to drop the “u” because I never wanted to be referred to as a yeast or mold again, and it was probably wise that the letters f and u shouldn’t be together in a name.

I made the official name change when I became a U.S. citizen. I didn’t have the campaign My Name, My Identity to dissuade me some thirty years ago. My mother is one of the few people who still call me Phuong. It is a pretty name now that I hear it.

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