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1978, CARLISLE, PENNSYLVANIA
“Ba, what’s my name?”
The Bee Gees’s “Stayin’ Alive,” with Barry Gibb’s siren falsetto, cut a suave silhouette from the radio’s single speaker, the accidental theme song for the Tran family. My father sat at the table, my mother bustled over the stove, and I was saddled upon my rocking horse, corralled in the corner of our eat-in kitchen.
Four years old, I was pondering a playground encounter with a freckly blond boy who had asked me my name, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to answer the most basic playground question: What’s your name? It wasn’t rocket science, but I answered it like the alien I was: “I’m not sure.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t know my name. I didn’t know which name to tell the boy. My family, as with all Vietnamese households, wielded a series of pronouns, nicknames, and endearments for me in addition to my given name, Phúc. I answered to all these monikers as my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents summoned me, upbraided me, teased me.
Con. Cung. Cháu. Em bé. Honey. Sweetie. Kiddo. Baby.
My father shuffled some papers and was scribbling items into a ledger when I asked him. He replied without looking up. “Your name is Phúc. What kind of question is that?”
“No, I mean: What is my name in English?” I was hanging upside down from the rocking horse.
My father admonished me in Vietnamese, the lingua franca chéz nous. “Don’t hang from the horse— you’ll knock it over again and get hurt. We can’t afford that.” He meant the last part. Hunched at the kitchen table. Hacking through a jungle of paperwork. Scratching out a list of how much each paycheck was, how much they needed for bills, and what they could afford to send to my grandparents—h is parents— still in Sài Gòn. A secondhand scarlet dictionary lay on the table next to him, thudding open as he consulted it for vocabulary that he didn’t understand in the rustling white of bills and checks. Amount Due. Gross Pay. Net Pay. (Helpful hint for future English learners: you can’t just look up the definitions of net and pay and put them together.) As he signed checks, he carefully wrote his name the American way. In Vietnam , names were written and given as Last, Middle, First, but in America, we had to relearn our names backward (First, Middle, Last) to fit in. Do things backward to fit in— a fitting metaphor.
This is the earliest memory I have. Dangling from the horse’s legs, bouncing upside down from the springed coils that held them, I was trapped indoors and trick- riding my plastic pony. My two- year- old brother, Lou, was still more accoutrement than accomplice, leaving me a lone ranger for playtime. With a napping baby, I had to find something quiet to do. Hanging upside down on the horse was my best effort at quiet.
My mother was preparing dinner, mincing onions, broccoli, and beef for a quick and cheap stir-f ry, and she echoed my father’s admonition. “Stop hanging from the horse, you monkey!” Con kh?. Monkey. The sharp edges of her injunctions were always smoothed over with a sweet endearment.
Our apartment’s kitchen, my ersatz O.K. Corral, was a twelve-b y- nine rectangular combo eat- in kitchen— the apogee of postwar efficiency and the nadir of seventies style— a kitchen into which my parents had shoved a secondhand white- and- gold- flecked Formica kitchen table and four matching chrome seats with squeaky patched vinyl upholstery. The kitchen’s oak laminate cabinets overflowed with three nearly complete sets of donated dishes, utensils, pots, and pans—a n incongruous scrum of kitchenware. The rocking horse reared in the corner; past the sink, stove, and refrigerator rumbled the washer and dryer in the back. We ate, cooked, did the dishes, and washed (and dried) our clothes all within twelve feet. How was that for all- American economy? It was barely a four- yard running play, but what a score for our first down in America. A washer and dryer in the tightest end of the apartment. A winning combination.
That 660-square-foot apartment at 214 Walnut Bottom Road was our first home in Carlisle. The apartment complex, Colonial Square Apartments, was owned by one of our sponsors, Bill Hooke, a real estate developer, who had set aside a unit for our nucleus of four. Short-l ooped emerald- green carpeting padded the entire apartment. Stiff, durable, and easy to clean, the verdant wall- to- wall carpet rolled through every room, a tightly landscaped golf course, a putting green for a family with no sense of the long game. We didn’t know that we’d be in this apartment for the next decade.
The unit was outfitted with used furniture that our American host families had assembled for us, the Trans from the land-o f- no- furniture. The Hookes and the Burkholders— American families in the luxury and safety of small- town America— were moved to help nameless refugees from the other side of the world. We received an array of household items, scattershot all over Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: pots and pans, clothing, a dictionary, shoes, toiletries, toys, a small black- and- white TV, and the aforementioned plastic rocking horse. Having traversed the globe for four months from Sài Gòn to Guam to Wake Island to Fort
Indiantown Gap and finally to Carlisle, Chánh and Chi Tran were grateful for any semblance of stability. They set up a home and were allowed to feel hopeful there on Walnut Bottom Road.
Hanging upside down, I awaited my father’s answer to my question.
What’s my name in English? This was more than just a four-y ear- old’s questions about penises, vaginas, and where babies came from. This was a four-y ear- old’s question about where he came from and why something as simple as his name had more than one answer.
Here’s a vulgar family secret: I’ve said my name wrong my entire life because of this very moment.
In Vietnamese, my name is phonetically pronounced fuhp. It sounds like a baseball clapping into the lithe, oiled leather of a catcher’s glove. Fuhp. Also, because Vietnamese is tonal (like its northern neighbor, Chinese), there’s a rising tone to it, so your voice upswings like a Valley girl if you say it correctly. FUHp? The letter c at the end of my name isn’t even pronounced like a c (thanks to archaic orthography and sound changes in the language)—i t’s a p sound.
My question precipitated a flowchart of choices for my father. In that moment, he had to make the decision that many immigrants are burdened with when their mother tongue is not compatible with their adoptive homeland’s phonetics. This is the original game of broken telephone.
What are our choices? What do you do when Vietnamese doesn’t sound like English? How do you pronounce Phúc? Well, I’m glad you asked, Mr. Tran.
Behind Door #1: Approximate the sounds (but stay true to the pronunciation)! Fuhp.
Behind Door #2: Make slight adjustments that don’t sound like the original but seem to make sense with the spelling! Fook.
Behind Door #3: Pick a new name and bury that old name as a vestige of a country lost and forgotten! Americanize it completely! Peter or Paul? John or George?
My dad thought for a few minutes about my query and went with door number two: slight adjustments for English that don’t sound like the original name but make sense with the spelling.
He answered my question. Finally.
“Fook. I guess your name is Fook? ... in English.” He went back to the mathematics of survival.
And Fook was born. You know the poem about a path that diverges in a wood and you take the one less traveled? That’s the one we took. Less traveled but easier to pronounce, as if easier- to- pronounce would make my path any smoother.
The vowel sound was different. No rising tone. Align the c at the end of my name with English orthography to make a hard, velar stop instead of the bilabial p sound. Vietnamese pegs squeezing into Colonial squares.
I mouthed the name. Fook? It didn’t feel like Fuhp ... No one said fook within the confines of our apartment. My parents and grandparents would never say it this way. Fook didn’t exist except for out there, on the other side of our green hollow- core door. Fook was out there. In the real world. In America. In the real America. I had to get used to him. I had to respond to that name. I had to introduce myself as him. “Fook? Okay ... Fook.” It wasn’t a question anymore. It was a statement. An assertion. A declaration.
With that small and benign act of linguistic legerdemain, we rechristened Phúc with his alter ego Fook.
Fuck it. Phuc it.
“Dad, what’s a Wookiee?” I was lying in my father’s lap on the floor of the living room, cradling The Star Wars Storybook, C- 3PO and R2- D2 in their glossy glory on the cover.
“Let me see. ... Ah, that’s Luke Skywalker.” My father read it aloud, enunciating each syllable slowly.
“And who’s that?”
“That’s Han Solo.”
“That’s Chewbacca. It says he’s a . . . Wookiee.”
“What’s a Wookiee?” Neither of us knew. Wookiee? We went to the dictionary, as we always did, to look up words from the American storybooks that my parents read us.
Wood ... Woof ... Wool ... Woolen ... No Wookiee. We looked again in the Star Wars book to make sure we were spelling it correctly.
W. O. O. K. I. E. E.
I asked my father to look yet again. Still nothing.
“I don’t know, Phúc. It’s not in the dictionary. I don’t know what it is.”
“Really? Are you sure you’re looking it up right?” I was incredulous. “Are you sure it’s not in there? Aren’t all words in the dictionary?” The dictionary had all the other words that we had looked up, and it never occurred to either of us that Wookiee was a made- up word, because who would make up a word? Wasn’t the point of writing to use real words?