After a few e-mail, I was asked to share my common app essay to give a basic idea or ballpark. I won’t say I have the best essay because even now, reading back, there is a lot that I would change or edit. But here it is.
Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Some people say in a name lies your identity. My name, Phương Nam, in part means “direction,” but being born and raised in the United States without an American name often left me at a loss.
I still remember being the embarrassed kid during roll call who had to correct her teachers, delaying my classes just to try to teach them how to say my name. Phương Nam was mispronounced and morphed into alien forms like Fuh-wang, Fawng, Foong, and even Spoong. Because the “ươ” sound in Vietnamese is unlike any in English, my lessons were inevitably futile.
When I was seven years old, I was asked by a classmate why I did not have an American name. I did not know how to respond; for the first time, I felt embarrassed to be Vietnamese. The number of ways someone could mispronounce Phương Nam equated to the amount of humiliation I felt when Phương Nam was morphed into some awkward, stiff reverberation caught in someone’s throat. I was at a loss for words, betrayed by the English language that I had so diligently practiced to hide my foreign roots. I quickly ran from my humiliation by lying to the girl, telling her that I actually just went by Nam. Since then, I was able to divide people in my life into two groups. The first only knew me by Nam—they were my friends and teachers in school, servers at restaurants, and strangers on the street. The second knew me by Phương Nam—they were my parents, my brother, and my close relatives. I felt like I was two different people going by two different names every day. Nam made me feel more American, but it shamefully hid an important part of who I was.
When I returned to Vietnam this past summer, I learned that even in Vietnam, my name was awkward and different. Everyone asked me why my name was such a weird combination of words: Phương meaning “direction” and Nam meaning “South.” It finally struck me to ask my mother what my name meant, and I learned that my name holds a story greater than any phrase could. To my parents, Phương Nam captured Vietnamese history and their personal journey escaping from South Vietnam after the communist regime took over in 1975. Like tens of millions of other refugees, my parents fled on a small fishing boat under the cover of night with the thin hope of making it to refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines, or Malaysia. While drifting in a sea of black, they looked south and felt a pang of regret for leaving everything and everyone they knew; fear of the unavoidable dangers of their journey; and excitement for the potential freedom, prosperity, and happiness that they could have if they made it. Phương Nam was that moment they looked towards home and remembered where they came from, but felt the surge of courage, tenacity, and strength to steer their lives in a new direction and strive for more.
Upon learning the meaning of my name, I recognized the irony of longing for a more American name when mine practically embodied the American dream. To be American isn’t to be white with Caucasian features. To be American is to dream courageously and have the strength to believe. To be American is to be proud and diverse. In Vietnam, I realized that Phương Nam does not mar my American identity, but instead reinforces it.
When I came home, I began to acknowledge who I am. I am American, but I am also Vietnamese. I changed my name at a young age, but now I choose to change it back. When someone asks why I don’t have an English name, I will be proud to explain that my name holds my identity as an American and a Vietnamese.