The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is Lan Cao, author of the new memoir Family In Six Tones, out now.
Dear Teen Lan,
Everyone says Be Who You Are. It’s an expression that is succinct and straightforward and powerful because it’s supposedly clear and simple. After all, the statement practically comes with its own instruction manual. Just Be Yourself. How hard can that be?
Which makes it all the more confusing to a teenager like you. Like other teenagers, you were struggling to understand the world and your place in it. And stuff like Be Who You Are, which is complex but masquerades as simple and obvious, was truly scary. Because you didn’t know who you were. Because you were still trying to figure it all out. It’s well-known that teenagers are stormy and moody and awkward and often full of angst. Even normal American teenagers, much less immigrant ones like you. American teenagers like those who seemed like they had their act together. In class, they spoke up and engaged with the teachers. They raised their hands confidently. Their clothes were stylish because they knew what was cool and fashionable and what not.
I’m sure you remember Carol. She had it all. Cheerleader. That was very high status in school. You marveled at the way she shook her pom pom to cheer on the football team, the JEB Stuart Raiders, at pep rallies in the gym. She was also in a lot of important clubs. She was even in the same AP English class with you. She made smart comments. They were similar to the ones you could have made, but you were too afraid to hear your own voice in public. So, you said nothing. In the morning, when the principal and other administrators made their public announcements on the intercom system, Carol’s various accomplishments would inevitably be mentioned.
But then remember you saw her one evening in her yard all lonesome and sad? She lived several streets down from your house at the time. You almost didn’t recognize her. Because you knew that when someone is enveloped in a haze of confusion, you almost can’t see their shape, much less the particular features of their face and body.
So, give yourself some slack and don’t dwell over all the shapeshifting things you did that covered up any trace of the real you so you could be more palatable to the world, assuming you even knew who “the real you” were. Some of those things were admittedly cringe-worthy. Like being embarrassed by your parents and their alien ways, from how they walked, like they needed to take as little space in America as possible to their thick accents (only British-sounding accents are favored and theirs was definitely not British). As if distancing yourself from fresh-off-the-boat aliens like them would somehow make people think you were a red-blooded American. Like not wanting them to use nuoc mam because fermented fish sauce so beloved and commonplace in Vietnamese cooking would be too stinky and the neighbors would realize you were actually from Vietnam. As if without that lip-smacking saltiness of nuoc mam coming out of your pores, you could somehow pass as native. Like researching on what new American name you could call yourself. Your birth name was long and Americans looked at it and just froze. Even the teachers who had to do roll call every morning stumbled and tripped over all those syllables they couldn’t make sense of. Cao thi Phuong Lan. Confusing, confusing. Cao was put first, which meant it should be the first name. And yet it is the last name. The Asian way is: family name first. And how to pronounce it? Certainly the teachers didn’t want to seem insensitive and call you “Cow.” So they put in an h. Make it Italian. Like Ciao. What bout “thi”? So biblical, pronounced like “thee” or “thy”? As in The Lord Thy God is With Thee? No. Nothing so familiar or comforting as that! The “thi” has a diacritical mark, signifying a tone shift. In this case it’s a dot underneath the “i” which commands the reader, “lower your tone into a sharp dip.” For all that trouble, “thi” is just a filler which has no meaning of its own. It’s just used with female names. Then there’s the “Phuong” which for some reason, looks so strange that Americans just couldn’t even try. The teachers just drew a blank and looked around the room for help. Yes, you wanted to tell them that the “ph” combo exists in the English language. Philistine. Philadelphia, city of Brotherly Love. And then there’s Lan. Phew. That’s the easiest one of all the caravan of names. And it even means “orchid.” Pretty. And a familiar flower to Americans. Not like other more exotic types no one has heard of in this country. Lantana. Night-blooming cereus.
Given the daily embarrassment with your name, it’s understandable you mulled over so many strategies. Change it. So many immigrants have done it that it’s practically a quintessentially American thing. To change your name. Carlos Estivez? Charlie Sheen instead. Charles Buchinsky? Charles Bronson instead. Farrokh Bulsara? Freddie Mercury. Totally new Anglicized identity. You did dream about doing it. Lan to Lana. Lan to Laura. And then you realized you couldn’t. Maybe it was because Saigon had a new name thrust upon it and became Ho Chi Minh City.
So you didn’t completely change your name. You kept Lan, the easy part, and got rid of the excess. You adapted a little bit, but not completely. It was a middle ground. A compromise. Hybrid. When you became a naturalized American and pledged allegiance to the United States of America in federal court, your name change became official. Cao Thi Phuong Lan became Lan Cao. It’s still a Vietnamese name. But not purely so.
You didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of “Be Who You Are.” Because as it turns out, as you got older, you’re not mixed up. Just mixed. And that was okay.
About The Author: Lan Cao is the author of Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter, a memoir co-written with her teen daughter Harlan Margaret Van Cao (also pictured). Lan is also the author of Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm, and most recently of the scholarly work Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change. She is a professor of law at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law, and an internationally recognized expert specializing in international business and trade, international law, and development. She has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke University School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and William & Mary Law School. For more information, please visit her website.