after a dinner of rye bread and imported cheese,
she’s doing the dishes while I’m in the living
room looking over Hongqiao Road.
Hannah told me today she named herself after
Hannah Montana, before she was Miley,
before she was Sabrina.
And her mum is Charlotte, after
but before all that? I ask, what were you
first, before all that?
When my papa came to Vietnam he fell
in love with the mangoes. Their bright
colors and sweet fragrance, their leaves
like dark pointy feathers, and sure maybe
he was just another white man
in an exotic land colonised by his
country, but he would never let me forget
that my name is an anthem to those
who survived a war, for great-
grandparents I never knew,
for the fields where things
still grow, and monks aren’t
burning and all that falls
from the sky is ripe fruit.
I wonder what Filipinos called
themselves before a Spanish monarch
baptised their country in his own name,
or Côte d’Ivoire before they labelled it
for its slaughtered goods. Before Obrunis
came in with my father’s eyes and
offered bible names to their children.
Still, I am guilty of having done the same,
when I taught at a
kindergarten in Jiuting I was asked
to rename the students in English.
I still see them in their little chairs
and tutu skirts, in a room gaping
with their parents’ vision for a
future in America. Their eager or
pouting faces as I crouched and
asked them each for their name,
exchanged it for a version a
Westerner could pronounce.
That is how Hui Yin became
Hellen and Chen became
John, how they grew up
watching sitcoms and reading
Harry Potter and listening to
Kanye like the rest of us did,
this is how dozens of kids
graduated and filled out
college applications with
names I forgot as soon
as I gave them.
But maybe it’s easier than
having people mispronounce
you with every introduction,
maybe it’s easier to reinvent
yourself after your favorite
book character. Maybe your
chosen name is better than
what your parents gave you,
and the shape of your eyes
is enough to tell what
you came from.
Leah comes out of the
kitchen, towelling her hands,
and says I could be a Sam.
“Or a Leslie,” she adds,
“Like in Bridge to Terabithia,”
We ponder over this a moment,
then shrug and put the movie in.