I remember the first time I got asked about my English name. It was in my first English class. The majority of the English centers in Vietnam request students to pick English names so foreign teachers can communicate easier with them, and to also bring a “foreign” vibe to the classroom. Most of the popular names Vietnamese picked at that time were Jane and Lily for girls, and John and Ben for boys.
Today, as more and more Vietnamese fly abroad to study or are in foreign-owned firms in Vietnam, having an English name has become more of a natural choice. This does not make them less Vietnamese in any way, of course. There have been numerous debates about how using English names distances young Vietnamese from their culture.
I’d like to call it adapting to the times and embracing Vietnam’s global integration.
But unlike before, when one- or two-syllable names are the most common options, young Vietnamese now actually put serious thoughts into picking names for themselves. More than a way of calling each other, a name can shape or even represent the persona you want other people to see.
Why do we need an English name?
The most common answer to this question is because Vietnamese names are, most of the time, too hard to pronounce. Vietnamese is a tonal language, using six different tones, that may be confusing to people who didn’t grow up speaking the local tongue. Not being able to pronounce someone’s name or mistaking a word for something else can result in unnecessary misunderstandings and awkward situations.
Phương Hà, an international student in Singapore, noticed that it’s easier to talk with her peers when the conversation doesn’t start with them struggling to pronounce her name. “Also my name ‘Ha’ is a sound people often make in normal conversations, so I just want to avoid messing up the moment by using an alternative name that sounds familiar to them,” she shared.
Despite having an easy-to-say name, outside classrooms, Trà My still chooses to use an English name in her daily life: “Whenever I make dinner reservations, order an Uber or Starbucks, I use my English name to save time for me as I would not have to try to explain to them my name. This can also help avoid confusion due to language differences.”
Another factor is that having English names also somehow bridges the gap between two different cultures. With names that are easier to pronounce, understand and remember, two people can feel more comfortable and create a better connection.
How do we choose an English name?
There is no exact formula for choosing an English name. Mostly because our English names are not bounded by any laws and often be used for personal purposes. Some Vietnamese choose their English name based on the first letter of their real names, such as Daniel for Đức, or Hannah for Hiền.
For Thiên Cúc, she chose her English name based on the pronunciation of her Vietnamese name — Tin Cook. “Many have misspoke my name to Coke,” she admitted, “so I hope with this English name, it not only makes it easier for foreigners to say but also still retains the familiarity of my Vietnamese name every time I hear it.”
Another way to create your English name is by directly translating what it means into English. That is how Trà My, a junior at Emory University, came up with her English name Camelia. In Vietnamese, Camelia is known as the name of a beautiful flower called hoa trà my.
In the case of Châu Bùi, a student at RMIT Vietnam, she was inspired by the way foreigners call their loved ones by using short versions of their real names, like Nicky (from Nick), Johnny (from John) or Matty (from Matthew). Thus, she added -y to her real name Châu, converting Châu to Châu-y, which sounds like Joey — her English name.
The name can also come from your favorite films, books, or artists. Phương Hà has adopted the name Amy since high school. Back then, Hà really liked Amy from “Gone Girl" film, and she thought that was a representation of her 14-year-old self. This name is mostly used for work-related purposes as there are certain images attached to it.
Nonetheless, while with friends and families, she still prefers being called Hà: “It sounds simple and quiet. I also want to be close to these people as much as I can. This “Hà” version has no grand image or anything attached to it, just my true self. I like to make a joke that Amy is my trading ticker, and Hà is the real company name. Same as Alphabet is the holding company of Google, but most people know it as Google.”