I remember a poignant scene from the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It? where Tina Turner is divorcing Ike Turner and she’s willing to give up everything as long as she gets to keep her name. All I want is my name, she said proudly. Her name meant more to her than all her riches or her royalties. I sat there watching this scene thinking would I do that? Would I give up everything for my name?
Recently, I had dinner with a friend who has his family crest tattooed on his forearm. His family name proudly scripted in large letters above the shield. Inked in a visible place, his crest demands attention. He tells me if his older brother didn’t have a son, the family name, the one emblazoned on his skin, would be lost. It’s up to the son to pass on the name. Such pressure on this child, I thought. The burden of a family lineage resting on his shoulders. What if he turns out like me? Someone who is willing to change his name to assimilate and blend in. If I have to attend an event where I have to wear a name tag, I spell my name Lee minus my last name. I am transformed into a one-word name like Elvis or Sting. The transition to becoming Lee, an American who grew up in the south, who graduated with a Biology degree, who enjoys living by the beach, is easy. It’s more difficult to be Ly, an immigrant from Vietnam who struggled to learn English, who rounded his eyes in the mirror, who tried to change his name.
I think about my mother whose maiden name I didn’t learn until I had to use it while filling out paperwork for my first loan. When she got married, her name dissolved, like sugar in hot tea, into my father’s. For nearly fifty years, no one called her by her first name. Even her own mother opted to call her ma lan or mother. Many years later, when she left my father to live with me, I was caught off-guard when my neighbors greeted my mother by her first name. I’ll admit that I was surprised, if not a little angry, when she acknowledged her name. In my mind, that name didn’t exist except only on paper. I realized, all those years, I never connected my mother to her name, never saw her as an individual, a separate entity apart from my father or my family. When my neighbors said her name out loud, I stopped in mid-step, my auditory senses triggering my visual ones and an independent woman appeared, someone completely different from the woman who raised me. Her name, one I didn’t even think she would even recognize, suddenly took form. What dawned on me was that there was no way my neighbors could have known her name unless she told them. They must have asked her what her name was and she must have replied, Gam, pronounced like gum but with an accent.
My name is Gam, I imagined her saying in her staccato English. It’s almost inconceivable that she could ever express such words. But she had to and by the looks of her exuberant behavior, it was something she has wanted to do for a long time. Reclaiming her name, after so many years of denying or hiding it, has brought about an unbelievable change, imagine Lynda Carter spinning as she transforms into Wonder Woman, only not as fast. The pride she feels in her name is infectious. Well, almost. Can I say I have the same amount of pride newly discovered by my mother? I can honestly say I don’t know. I have accepted my name and have grown to appreciate its uniqueness but I still don’t correct people when they spell my name Lee. I let them discover the correct spelling on their own. The reaction is always the same, Oh, I didn’t know you spell your name L-Y. I would smile, not offering much of a defense. Perhaps I have to lose it, like my mother did, to know the value of it. Then maybe and that’s a big maybe, I would even have the courage to tattoo it on my arm. ip address