Written by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
To Protect Me From America, My Parents Changed My Name Without Telling Me
When I was 18, my parents legally changed my name without my permission. In one split second, I went from Leslie Okwu to Leslie Nguyễn-Okwu. There was no discussion, no vetoes, nothing. “Looks better this way,” they said, “end of story.” But not for me. With a crisp, new birth certificate in hand, I suddenly had to bear the weight of my full and fraught heritage as a Vietnamese Nigerian American. I was torn.
A decade later, I still struggle to balance on that hyphen—teetering on a tightrope between Asian America and Black America. My mother is from Bà Rịa. My father is from Umuhu. I am from Dallas. I am living proof of the country’s fast-changing face and a counterweight to white supremacy. As racial violence embroils the country once again, I finally understand the power of what my parents did—to not only honor the nuance of who I am, but also to hedge against the color of my dark skin.
Adding those six letters allows me to take up more space in a country that suffocates, spits on, and shoots people like me. My name is a new patch on the fabric of my family’s larger story, as we navigate the twisted strands of acceptance and assimilation amid the broader backdrop of Asian anger and Black hate. Nguyễn was tacked on so that hiring managers wouldn’t throw my résumé in the trash, my mother told me. “Though they probably still will,” she added. Or if I’m ever pulled over by the cops, “Just point to the Nguyễn,” my father taught me. “Hide behind your model minority-ness. Omit the Okwu.”
My identity, like my name, is staked on shallow soil. For us, our place in America is precarious. My parents, in their lives uprooted, witnessed civil wars that destroyed their respective countries and their childhoods deferred inside refugee camps and orphanages. By the time they landed in New York, it felt like a long, long exhalation. But peace doesn’t always come after war. The realities of racism, discrimination, and xenophobia trailed closely behind them. Growing up, my family lived as if we were still on borrowed time.
I tried to make music out of my family’s disharmony, but I remained out of tune. I absorbed my parents’ languages—Vietnamese and Igbo—but awkwardly stumbled between them, and then rushed to catch up in remedial English classes. At home, we were hermits. My father taught me to angle the blinds so that no one could see inside. I was not allowed to leave. “It’s dangerous out there,” my mother said. But I desperately wanted to escape and explore. Later as an adult, I decided to quietly visit Vietnam and trace my roots, despite her warnings that her country was still rife with violence. I found only rubble in place of her childhood home, long destroyed by the war. I haven’t been back since. Now I see, changing my name was just another way to protect me from further pain.
I’ve seen the strain on my dad’s relationship with his family who reject his marriage to an outsider and his daughter who doesn’t quite look like them. I’ve never met my Nigerian cousins, all 50 and counting. Likewise, my mom was reluctant to reunite with her family after decades apart, even after 30 years of navigating America’s Byzantine immigration system on their behalf. To me, my grandparents are still strangers; they feel my aloofness when I hug them.
It would be easy to point to me—a Vietnamese Nigerian American—as a paragon of the American Dream, but the story of upward mobility is more complex than that. Stereotypes paint me and my people in broad strokes, but I am more than the sum of Black failure and Asian success. As Black and Asian communities grow in size and stature, our risk of being attacked also rises, from the strip malls of Atlanta and the protests in the streets to the safety of one’s own bed and the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill. Hypervisibility, I’ve learned, is just as lethal as our invisibility.
While my parents were forced to shrink for their survival, I now have the choice to take up space. My space comes from my Blackness and my Asianess—it comes from within, the core of who I am, the hyphen in my name. My name is both singular and plural, carrying the heritage of those who came before me and those who will come after me. As I rise to mighty positions, I must remember whose shoulders I stand on, my father told me. As I climb toward new heights, I must lift the rest of us up, too, my mother told me. In the storm of straddling different worlds, there’s a clarity of who we are and a calmness that grounds us when we finally find that airy, weightless space in between.
Although I sit uneasily at the corner of two colliding cultures, my name represents the complexity and contradiction of America, both the proud and prickly parts of who we are and who we hope to be. Today, every article I publish and every award I receive bears my name, Leslie Nguyễn-Okwu. It is my parents’ gift to me. Their sacrifices are the scaffolds to my successes. And even as Black and Asian communities stare down the barrel of a gun, their hope is etched into the hyphen that bridges my family’s different histories and hardships, and it is the name I will carry with me wherever I go.
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