Does your name make you Australian?

Does your name make you Australian? Photo: Getty Images

I didn't always go by this name. As a child, I struggled with my bicultural identity – I'd been born and raised in Australia, but both my parents were from Vietnam. I never quite knew where I belonged: Was I Asian? Was I Australian? It took many years before I came to the realisation that I was both. And it was my first name that triggered it all.

When I was born in 1988, my parents named me 'Kim-Thuy' because they liked the meaning behind the name – the Vietnamese translation meant that I was “a good person”. Although us four children were born in Australia, my parents were adamant that we wouldn't lose the Vietnamese culture. So to my family, I was 'Thuy' for short.

Until the end of primary school, my classmates called me 'Kim-Thuy'. I was proud to be a second generation Australian.

According to the Australian Census of Population and Housing in 2011, 20% of the population were second generation Australians: Australian-born people living in Australia, with at least one overseas-born parent (equal to 4.1 million). Since the first National Census in 1911, migrants have made up a large component of the Australian population, most of whom have come from Europe, but the numbers have been increasing from Asia
and other parts of the world.

Nearing the end of primary school, I grew tired of explaining why my name was different. So I decided to chop the second part off my first name and call myself 'Kim'.

Eileen Chu, whose postgraduate research focuses on biculturalism in Australia, believes that a Western name can help a person feel that they belong. Explaining from the University of Sydney: “Individuals who simultaneously identify with two cultures may experience a more tenuous sense of cultural belonging than others who only identify with one. The desire for a more ‘western sounding’ name may reflect the need to believe that one fits, belongs to a western culture.”

And this idea of belonging explains why Winnie Huynh, 35, decided to give Western names to her children, Jayden, 6 and Lucas, 4. Winnie, who moved from Vietnam to Australia, struggled with her name, 'Huong'. “My husband and I were teased at school for both having Vietnamese names. I used to work at an Italian restaurant, but no-one could really say my name correctly and they'd forget it too. When I later worked at Retravision, my boss gave me the name Winnie. In the years since I've started using it, I've found that
lots of people could remember it.”

She adds: “My husband and I considered giving Vietnamese names to our children, but we thought living in the western world, it would be better to have western names. We didn't want them to be teased by kids at school, just like we were.”

Libby Hakim, 37, also spent plenty of time finding the right names for her children. Her husband, Paul, is of Lebanese descent. They wanted to choose names that stayed true to her husband's culture but were also easy to pronounce. So they named their two girls, Zara and Yasmin, 3 years, and 3 months, respectively. “We chose these particular names because they were a blend of Arabic and English, which reflects their mixed cultural background. Paul's family have been in Australia for some time and each generation is losing some of the culture, the language. So we thought it would be nice for the girls to have Arabic names.”

But the couple were careful with which Arabic names they chose. “My husband insisted on having names that didn't sound too Arabic. My husband's test was whether the name would sound okay on a résumé. I think he's just very aware of how much discrimination occurs.”

My physical appearance may not have screamed 'Australian', but of the little I knew about Vietnamese culture, it didn't scream 'Asian' either. Although I spoke Vietnamese to my parents and ate Vietnamese food, I'd only been to Vietnam once, but without any recollection of it. I'd been born and raised in Australia, ate Vegemite for breakfast, liked meat pies, and my accent was as thick as an Australian one could get. Yet, despite all this, I still felt like an outsider.

As I struggled through high school wondering if I was Asian or Australian, my brother would often joke that I was ashamed of our Asian culture and that was why I refused to go by the name 'Thuy'. To an extent, he was right.

Like many bicultural children, I struggled with my identity. I thought that I had to neglect one cultural identity to have the other. I thought that having a name like 'Thuy' made me less Australian than those around me. But I realise now that it doesn't.

Chu says: “People should feel free and comfortable enough to wear a name which expresses who they feel they are without fear of judgement ... whether an individual chooses to identify with a ‘western’ sounding or ‘eastern’ sounding name, we should respect that because a name is a reflection of who they feel they are and where they belong.”

Despite growing up as a child torn between her two cultural identities, I am finally at peace with who I am. Nowadays, I go by the name 'Thuy'. I still eat Vegemite on toast, meat pies, and have that same Aussie accent that people still can't believe is mine. My husband and I have Western names for our three children, as well as one Chinese and one Vietnamese middle name for each of them. I now feel proud of my Asian heritage and of my name. My name means that I'm proud to be Asian, as well as Australian. That I'm proud to have the best of both worlds.

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.