When I was a toddler, my mother would often swing me to sleep back and forth in her arms, singing folk lullabies that originated from the Vietnamese countryside. I remember one lullaby with somber lyrics:
Dí dầu cầu dáng đống đinh
Cầu tre lắc lẻo ngập ngình khó đi
Khó đi mẹ dắt con đi
Con đi trường học, mẹ đi trường đời
Since I am only familiar with conversational Vietnamese, my mother translated them for me. This stanza talks about a bridge made from bamboo and bounded with nails, rough and difficult to cross, but the mother holds the child’s hand and helps him over to the other side. There are no hand rails to support these poor travelers who risk falling into deep waters below. What awaits the child at the end of the bridge is a school of academics, but for the mother, she must go through a test of life.
When I think about this lullaby, I reflect on my unusual moniker, “Tomy,” and how my mother’s broken English – a testament of her self-made story – became woven into my life.
In fourth grade, I discovered that my given name had been misspelled when the substitute teacher butchered it during roll call. After my friends teased me, as only elementary friends can, I eagerly scrambled through my mother’s official documents. And there it was. The black, faint letters engraved in my social security card, spelling out TOMY DUONG. It was preposterous! I couldn’t tell what my mother was thinking or how to even pronounce it. Too-mie. Tom-mie. It even sounded like tô mý – as far as I knew, I could have been named after a bowl of noodles. Conventional English standards tell us to use double consonants in this case. I was a fourth-grader, and even I knew that. How did my mother overlook such a simple spelling rule of such a simple American name?
When I confronted her, she admitted to misspelling my name. She explained how she immigrated to the States without any knowledge of the English language with the exception of simple salutations. It was inevitable; the boy with the misspelled name was the consequence of a hopeful immigrant who knew nothing short of relentless labor. The English language was more of a recreational activity than a necessity to her. Soon I began to ponder the true significance of my moniker.
My culturally-bilateral name represents the parallel worlds in which I live. In one, I am the classic Asian student, demanding of myself and determined to meet my mother’s expectations. In the other, I am an American teenager, resolute on obtaining freedom and independence from an overly authoritarian household. Existing in these two clashing cultures, I am often embroiled in situations many would find irrational.
Expectations were high – earning a 94 on my report card was a failure (mother nodded her head in dismay because I “did not work hard enough”) and not updating her Facebook post about my latest accomplishments was a surefire way to be chastised (mother fussed that I “never listened to her”). Freedoms were limited – going to football games posed a challenge (mother ordered me to stay home and study instead of “going out too much”) and buying a bottle of ketchup at Target for a classic Southern cookout was considered an extravagance; the resulting lecture was more frightening than Paranormal Activity (mother bellowed over the phone about how I “should have spent money more wisely” and brought ketchup from the household pantry). Throughout my life, I tried to resist and dismantle my mother’s overbearing and sometimes ludicrous parenting; my attempts were futile.
Overtime, I began to despise my name. I wanted to be fully Americanized. In fact, I wished I were white; Tommy Smith would have had a better life than Tomy Duong. I felt like my name’s misspelling was living proof of how my Vietnamese upbringing made me a flawed American.
During one of many clashes with my mother, I protested my heritage. In response, she scorned my resentment and argued how grateful I should be. She elaborated about her palpable struggles back in Saigon – a school uniform down to her ankles to last five years, the daily miles to Saigon she trekked to sell homemade meals only to earn the equivalent of an American nickel, the water leakage of her dilapidated house during Vietnam’s tropical deluges, and much more. Through years of skirmishes, each followed by the same you-should- be-grateful stories, I gradually reckoned something.
My mother’s struggles and her Vietnamese heritage were, in fact, the most “American” part of her. Despite her desires to instill traditional Vietnamese values in me, her determination to attain a new life – fueled by her daily struggles – fundamentally embodied the American character that I yearned to achieve. After my grandfather facilitated her relocation to the United States in 1995, she gave birth to my brother and me in Mississippi and would then dedicate her self-less life for us, working in shrimp factories and local casinos, sometimes leaving my brother and me home alone during graveyard shifts with heartbreaking hesitancy – “Would the police find out that they’re home alone? Will they be okay?” she often mused. Now, she owns her own salon as a manicurist, a profession dominated by Vietnamese Americans after actress Tippi Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, gave lessons to Vietnamese refugees post-Vietnam War. What is more American than a belief in the American dream?
As I begin to accept my name and my duality, I realize that my name tells not only about how my name was misspelled but also how I’ve come to share with my mother the same American outlook for independence while also appreciating her Vietnamese values. While navigating this unsteady world – much like the unstable bamboo bridge in the lullaby – in my quest to achieve the same kind of success that she has, I cannot help but to attribute my goals and ambitions in life to her struggles, to her test of life, to her undying American spirit to achieve the American dream, one that has granted me many doors of opportunity. I have realized long ago that my mother paved much of my life already through her story, her resilience, and most importantly, her love. To others, a misspelled name may be an embarrassment, but for me, it’s who I am.