Relax, kick back, give a long sigh. My name has been mangled and it’s being plastered across the screener, again.
Even after making it the most attention-grabbing element of my email’s signature line, with significantly larger type and a different color than black, I still didn’t have the 10-on-10 guarantee “Nguyen Le” would be spelled correctly. Rather, it’s no different to roulette, where it can be Nguyen Le one day and Ngyen Le the next, or Ngyen Lee today and tomorrow it’s — somehow — Nuygen Le.
My film-critic journey, when I chose to accept it, came with a requirement: I must decide what my byline will look like. Nguyen, or Nguyên, or Denis? Those three were my choices, and it was a major source of anxiety.
For this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and after so many events that have me questioning my presence in the field and on this land, I decide to take a deeper look into my name — and films where name hold an integral role.
The year 2013 brought with it the release of the high-fantasy, Western-centered 47 Ronin and the opportunity to file my first professional-level review (of said film). Carl Rinsch’s feature debut isn’t the most positive of launchpads for my writing skill, but a step forward is a step forward.
As hinted, I settled upon Nguyen. Denis came this close. I was told early on my path “would be better” with a Westernized name, but that would mean bidding adieu to a self-set mission: to be present in film-discussing circles with a hopefully informative and distinctive Vietnamese-slash-Southeast Asian voice. Nguyên, while perfect and on-the-spot factual, entertained the risk of the “e” with the circumflex to be displayed as an unsightly upright rectangle. Just one choice with the diacritics on extended leave remained, but the shedding of the ^ seems necessary if I want the best of both worlds — a name that represents me in spaces beyond the home and reflects my origins, and a name that will minimize any difficulty operators and readers of an outlet I’m writing for might face. Most importantly, I still get to be me. I won’t need to do what “Akira Yoshida” did.
Looking back, I was too sunny-minded. Without the “e” with the hat, my name is still a hurdle for people. If it isn’t the “ng” sound that gets them — do not count on writer-director Cameron Crowe, through Emma Stone, to correctly teach you how in Aloha — it’d be the confusion they have from thinking I have two last names. Again, it’s Nguyên and not Nguyễn. There’s no tilde above the circumflex, or no breeze blowing above the hat. The loss of the diacritics, I came to realize for my case, is no minor thing, not the cure-all I had hoped for. Whenever I have to explain the difference, my mind would rush back to the moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away where Yubaba (Mari Natsuki) changes our lead’s name from Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) to Sen before taking her in as a Bathhouse worker.
In her analysis for RogerEbert.com, writer Jana Monji also focuses on this switch, one that reduces “a thousand questions” (Chi-hiro) into “a thousand” (Sen). The film majorly emphasizes names — how an individual is called is how they appear to us, like Kaonashi when broken down is literally “no-face,” and then there’s the original title being Sen and the Mysterious Disappearance of Chihiro upon translation — this pair is the one most deserving of attention. It is then revealed contracting names is how Yubaba brainwashes and enslaves folks, but for Chihiro’s case dehumanization might also be involved. As “a thousand,” Chihiro is quite literally a value to a crone who treasures her finances. While Nguyên becoming Nguyen is nowhere as severe, it doesn’t promise me a flawless first impression every time. When things go south, I will have to attempt a smile at the “Oh, look, he has two last names!” reaction.
It’s common for Vietnamese children to have a second, generally cute-sounding, shorter name within the household, and mine was Denis. As the story goes, when I was born my parents hosted a family “pick a name” roundtable, and my Dì’s French husband’s choice got the most approval. He told me later on it’s the name of his best friend from childhood. I then stopped thinking it was a reference to a headless saint.
Certain accents might opt for Dennis instead, but I’d accept it. Had I chosen “Denis Le” as my professional brand — yes, in retrospect, it would make my life easier. That grownup was prophetic. A Western-sounding name would help me blend in well with a majority of Vietnamese around my generation, native and Viet kieu alike — especially if they’re in the performing arts or adjacent fields, because it’s considered trendy. It relieves the pressure on the foreigners’ tongues, too. It will prove beneficial should one or one’s work be abroad. The latter two notions can be seen in action in Somebody Feed Phil’s Sài Gòn episode where host Phil Rosenthal teaches the fourth-graders of Bà Rịa’s UK Academy International School; they all introduce themselves with Anglo names like “Joy” and “Max.” I don’t know if the kids were offered a choice to use either their Vietnamese name or their desired Westernized name, or if there’s a school policy on students’ names in place. It’s interesting to see.
But Denis didn’t pass since I was shown how it could fail. When a couple of classmates found out my “at-home” name, while waiting for the teacher to arrive, they penned Denis on the whiteboard, asked me to look, and slowly drew a vertical line that changed the “D” into a “P.” In one stroke, I went from being my French uncle’s meilleur ami to a main part of the male anatomy. It would be a couple more years before Ang Lee’s Life of Pi came out when this happened, but that was my preview: In the film, a young Piscine Molitor Patel (Ayush Tandon) is the joke of the school when friends and teachers downgrade his name into “Pissing,” but he overcomes the crisis after shortening his name into the mathematical constant pi. This growth from zero to legend, I’d like to think, places Pi out at sea before the story does, introducing him to how elements regarded irrational can be sound life-saving devices — and part of living is perhaps to realize things that are reasonable and things that are not can interact on the same plane.
The name Denis doesn’t have the luxury to be pared down like Piscine. Yet, by not using it, I found more confidence in being Nguyen.
Does it matter?
I ask this question often, seeing how I’d still encounter some variation of “Are you Chinese?” even with first-day introductions or, sometimes, name tags.
Lately, though, I notice my asking has grown louder and clearer. Why wouldn’t it be when much of the nation has adopted, or has switched to, this thinking of “You are Chinese” — at times with unbelievable rage — for any Asian they see? When the video of the New York doormen refusing to help an elderly Asian woman made the evening news in France, my Dì, whose husband gave me the name Denis, told me, “You be careful, they don’t ask which Asian country you’re from before they beat you.”
All these incidents, toxic memes and rhetoric of late can’t help but reinforce a dark notion I’ve always held: My environment can take issue with me not because of my name but rather my appearance. I’m not sure I can return or exchange this at the nearest Walmart or Costco?
Kelly Marie Tran, in her stirring New York Times essay after fans (?) of Star Wars forced her to delete her Instagram, touched upon how the makeup of U.S. society could compel people, including her parents, to Westernize their names so they can feel they belong. An old classmate Phúc had to do it so his name would continue to mean “fortunate” and not “fornication,” or a jokey exclamation as seen in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. A relative named Bích, too, so she would stay lush like an “emerald” or “jade” and not “female dog” or “angry woman.” Friends of past colleagues Dung and Thảo as well, so they can stop hearing “excrement” and “towel” jokes and remain “composed” and “greenery.” The Raya and the Last Dragon lead powerfully ended her article by revealing her birth name and that she’s “just getting started” — highly likely a nod to “Loan” as an old word meaning “female phoenix,” and no doubt a signal that she will never stay perished like the haters have wished. And on that note, hopefully a surprise knowledge — “loan” doesn’t only mean what The Falcon can’t get after saving the world.
But I still can’t stop bringing up the same question. As Nguyen, Nyugen, Ngen, Nuygen, Engine (how?) or Nugent (how?!), per the screeners and emails I’ve been so fortunate to receive, I still feel undermined. If recent times and trends in the film-appreciating field have shown me one thing, undermining is a hallmark that should be broadcast when possible, and targets are always the people hoping for more representation. Critic Roger Moore of Movie Nation hit this troubling trifecta in his negative review of Raya by linking the Southeast Asia-inspired film to the East Asian country of China (“Chinese dragon,” “Chinese myth” and matter-of-factly stating of a yet-confirmed link between pangolins and COVID), which is incredible when all it takes to avoid the “feat” is minimal Googling, watch only one featurette and one speck of curiosity — all of which will suggest “Raya” is not Chinese sounding and therefore voids any connection. After being called out, only the first two of three references have been edited — without any note. These angry and condescending trophies remain, however:
Full disclosure: I don’t mind that he didn’t like the film, but I do that he’s not using his nationally syndicated journalistic experience wisely. The odds of him being pull-quoted or highlighted are still Roger-levels higher than a Nguyen or insert-not quite Anglo name-here. But to be fair, he started his brand of “against the grain” criticism in 1984, when it was easy for film critics who look like him to be childish and children who look like him to become film critics. For certain combinations of names and looks, it doesn’t take much effort or many credits to break in. Also, when they’re in, they stay in. Eviction only comes when absolutely no more excuses can be made, or when moving the goalpost to accommodate will risk more than reward.
Does Nguyen really mean win?
And my name is…
On March 22, I welcomed diacritics back to my name on my Twitter account after having it for six years. I wish influencing this decision had been pride and joy, not fear and anger. The Atlanta spa shootings killing six women of Asian descent were just six days ago.
To this day, I still sense uneasiness when introducing myself. I still harbor this bizarre jealousy of film protagonists who can answer “Who are you?” so confidently and dramatically, for they know with absolute certainty other characters won’t have to wonder how to pronounce “ng.” Until that is no longer an issue, assuming there will be that moment, I find joy, still, in being able to display the actual way my name looks — and to see that from others’ if they choose to do it, sometimes in beautiful native characters. I don’t mind Nguyen, but I’m now more assured about Nguyên. He — or he, too — is invited to the discourse. He — or he, too — can consider every byline from yours truly as home.
In the end, I think the right choice was made.
Any tips for the lingering anxiety, though?