(Originally published by Nguoi Viet 2)
As a father to an almost 4-year-old daughter born in the United States, I already worry if she will fully understand where she comes from in order to know what type of person she should and ought to become.
I was only two years older than her when my family escaped Vietnam via boat to the U.S. in 1982. With parents as daring political refugees risking everything for freedom, one would think that they would early on instill in their children a sense of pioneering spirit and of inheriting the former South Vietnam’s democratic aspirations.
But just the opposite happened.
My parents erected a safe haven for their four boys. When we were growing up in Delaware, they never talked about the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Instead, they emphasized being practical and playing it safe. In my case, they wanted me to be a successful dentist. And because they worked very long hours, as a kid I knew very little about my family’s history or my homeland’s history and increasingly began to speak English at home.
However, as fate would have it, I was impractical and searching for something bigger than myself. My mom and dad thought I was going through a phase when I told them I was majoring in political science and U.S. history with a minor in black studies, as well as taking a job as a teacher’s assistant in the women’s studies department. At about this time, I discovered ‘Vietnamese America’ via Vietnam Vision, a now-defunct television station based in Houston. It suddenly became clear to me that all of my academic training was to prepare me to work for the Vietnamese community, both in the U.S. and in Vietnam.
My parents, of course, thought I was out of my mind, since I never grew up around Vietnamese people and could barely speak Vietnamese. Nonetheless, soon after my graduation, I packed up my car and headed to Houston. That day, my mother cried a thunderous storm and begged me to change my mind. I was truly sorry for breaking my parents’ wishes, but in looking back, that day was the start of my becoming a ‘recovering Vietnamese.’
In ‘recovering,’ I have found my core identity, which helps to explain who I am along with providing me a sense of direction as a Vietnamese American. I intend to share my identity with my daughter very early on so that she can know her heritage without having to recover it, as I had to.
In December 2006, my father, Lê Thức Cần, gave each of his four sons an English translation of ‘The Lê Genealogy’ written by my paternal grandfather, Lê Tài Trương, before his death in 1982. It was originally in French with chữ nom characters, a Vietnamese adaptation of Chinese written symbols.
According to the genealogy, our direct descendant is Lê Lai, who played an important role in the ascension of the country’s second major dynasty, the Lê Dynasty. As a commander, he sacrificed himself so that Lê Lợi, the eventual founder of the dynasty and the emperor of Vietnam, could escape Chinese troops in the early 1400s. To honor his deeds, my ancestors devised five terms for the middle name for their male descendants to be used successively for each generation: Sĩ, Tuyển, Kiêm, Tài and Thức. Together, these five terms connote an edict: Choose public servants among those who have leaderhship and competence — to guide our family’s subsequent generations.
(Family surname and the five terms were in written in chu nom by my grandfather. Togethter they constitute an ever endless chain).
During the war, when the fate of Vietnam was uncertain, my father added Việt to the middle name (Sĩ Việt) so that my brothers and I would remember that we were born in Vietnam.
This background has given me a sense of heritage and pride, knowing what I have been doing through the years trying to reconnect and contribute to the Vietnamese people in the U.S. and in Vietnam has been a part of noted tradition in my family tree.
When my daughter was born in 2003, my wife and I gave my father the right to name his first grandchild. Because of her gender, she is not entitled to take a designated middle name. My father, therefore, named her Lê Thu Trang; Thu is my mother’s middle name and Trang is my wife’s middle name.
At the time, I thought this choice was very appropriate because it symbolizes the union of two generations of Vietnamese women. My mother represents the image of a dutiful daughter-in-law, virtuous wife and indulgent mother. My wife represents the image of a Vietnamese woman stepping out of traditional roles because of real-life situations, transforming to a successful businesswoman for the betterment of her family and her community.
And now, having learned more about my family genealogy, I told my father that I wanted the five terms to reflect the present, adding Tuyền to my daughter’s name: Lê Tuyển Thu Trang.
I did this in the hope that it will provide my child the knowledge that she, now the family’s 12th generation, is a link in an endless chain started by Lê Lai. And, regardless of her sex, she is now expected to live up to the virtues of her ancestors who had been faithful public servants, including her paternal grandfather and great grandfather.
At the same time, she should also realize that her male ancestors came from an elite class which did not support women’s advancement in education and in the public realm.
Here, she may need to draw on outside sources for inspiration and guidance, like U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton or Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, if she so chooses to be active in the public sphere.
She, too, may find more comfort in our culture in which a Vietnamese woman, Trưng Trắc, was once recognized as queen, with a husband who followed her leadership and was alive during her reign.