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Ashes to Ashes: What's in a name?

I love my last name. I love that it sometimes throws people off and that it’s distinctly Vietnamese. I also love that I have a perfect slogan to go with it should I ever choose to run for public office (I never will): You Can’t Go Wrong With Ashley Duong.

I also love the way it sounds. Phonetically, it’s pronounced “doo-wong” but in Vietnamese, it’s one syllable and sounds more like “yoong.”

I always feel obligated to explain myself when I give my full name to anyone. Yes, my father is Vietnamese, but no, I cannot speak the language. While I grew up in California, my paternal grandparents lived on the opposite coast, which meant limited interaction with that side of my family. For some reason, my father also never taught me or any of my siblings how to speak his native tongue. The opposite was true for my mother, who made my sister and I go to Chinese school on the weekends and required us to speak on Chinese at home.

My inability to speak Vietnamese is kind of a touchy subject for me, something I feel a lot of shame and guilt about. Growing up, when I attended family functions with my dad, it was always a painful affair. I never knew what was going on. My siblings and I are the only ones out of our group of cousins who can neither speak nor understand Vietnamese, and we were reminded of it at every moment during weddings, birthdays and holiday celebrations.

It’s not something I’m particularly proud to admit but those family gatherings were the one thing I was most happy to escape once I left for college. No more sitting at a corner of a table unable to socialize with my own family or being reminded that I am sort of an embarrassment and disappointment.

But more than the feelings of shame, it was confronting how I had lost my connection with my heritage that was most uncomfortable. I don’t really know anything about my grandparents’ lives in Vietnam. I know the barebone details of their journey to America — living in refugee camps and escaping the country on boats — but beyond that, it’s all still a mystery to me. I’ve tried to make up for it by taking history classes on the Vietnam War (which is referred to in Vietnam as the American War), reading what I can about the country and understanding its politics, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

I also keep kicking myself and saying I’m going to sit down and really interview them to get the story before it’s too late, but I still haven’t done it. It’s hard to speak to my paternal grandparents. Their English is better than my Vietnamese, but still at a level where communicating effectively is a struggle. Coupled with little to no interaction, especially since I’ve gone off to college, everything feels awkward and strange.

Am I Vietnamese? Sometimes I’m not even sure. When I explain my situation to people, I always say I “feel” more Chinese than I “feel” Vietnamese, but my name is my name. I just hope someday I can be connected to it in ways that go beyond the surface.