Beth Nguyen wasn’t always Beth. Her given name, the popular Vietnamese Bich (pronounced ”Bic”), led to constant questioning (“You know what your name looks like, right?”). Her desire for acceptance led her to change her name to Beth.
Bich became Beth when she placed an order at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, and gave the name without premeditated thought.
“The woman behind the counter didn’t care. She didn’t say, ‘Is that really your name?’” says Nguyen, novelist and professor in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin. “There’s something about that moment that stayed with me as a way to create a sense of permission for myself, legitimacy for myself. Anybody can do this. For me, it started at the Shake Shack.”
Years before she changed her name, Nguyen experienced tension understanding her identity and learning how to comfortably navigate the world as a Vietnamese child of refugees living in America with a name that often found its way at the center of a joke.
Nguyen grew up in Grand Rapids, coming of age in the 1980s, an era when the concepts of “identity” and “belonging” weren’t mainstream topics and weren’t addressed as openly as they are today. Her earliest brush with racism came at American schools, where she says there were no resources or anyone to turn to. Instead, she was expected to “sort of deal with it.”
“It was a time when people who felt isolated were really quite isolated because it was harder to be in touch with others in our communities,” she recalls. “So, when I look back at that time period, I feel the isolation that we experienced. It was certainly a learning experience and something that has shaped my whole life and my thinking about what it means to be Asian in America.”
Nguyen’s thoughts on identity and belonging come together in her recent essay for The New Yorker, “America Ruined My Name For Me.” In it, Nguyen takes the reader inside of what she describes as a “social experiment” with the name Beth, while also painting an image of the American white gaze, and, with reference to the 1982 Detroit murder of Vincent Chin and the recent murders of six Asian women in Atlanta, the racist-fueled violence that threatens the Asian and Asian-American community.
Listen: Writer Beth Nguyen talks about how a name impacts identity, culture and social acceptance.