The life of a butchered name

…is my name – and boy, has it had a whirlwind of adventures in its 25 years of existence. It’s been tossed into a linguistic grinder , verbally chopped and phonetically dissected to create possibly the most interesting sounds ever. 

I will have gotten your lips moving by now in your own attempt. No worries though, you won’t be the first.

From Ding Dong to All Wrong  

First day of 3rd grade, Mrs. Wainwright called the roll as her eyes glanced around our circle of 15 to fit the names with the faces. Each time a person’s name was read, the whole class would say in unison “Hi…” Kevin or Alice or John.

It was finally my turn and it’s still somehow engrained in the back of my mind, her knitted brows and the perplexed expression on her face as she hesitantly uttered “Dong?“.

Zuh-ong“, I replied , to which her face wrinkled up even more so, before stretching out to smile : “How about we call you by an English name, yes? How’s Jen or Jenny?” (what my classmate told me a year later)

You must understand, I was 8 at the time, I had been studying French the 2 years before and hadn’t a word of English in my head besides “Hi”.  And so I did what a lost person would do, NOD.

Only a second later, I realized what a huge mistake I had made, as the whole class shouted “Hi Jenny!

From Jenny to Jo – to Yoyo ! 

I still and forever will have sour memories of that name “Jenny”. By the time I was equipped with enough English to fend for myself, the damage had been done. Throughout the next years, I gave in to the “Jenny” stipulation, by doing the worst, introducing myself by that name. 

By high school, I was back in the States again and it was the perfect turning point to sack the name and begin anew. I even added a “z” turning my name into Dzuong, hoping it would somehow smooth out  the concerned brows.

The already-formed cliques of rebellious teenagers couldn’t give a beeswax about what Dzuong is and so the butchering began. You had everything from the coarse “Ding Dong”, to the softer “Zong” and “Zu” , and even “Zuzu”.  And, of course my AP Physics teacher, who just insisted on calling me “Jo“, to which some caught on and called me “Yoyo” -yes, like the toy.

It was a linguistic nightmare, and yes, I’ve sank to low points where I wished my name was just a plain and readable one.

Growing out the nickname phase

The college days were much kinder to my name. The poor thing had suffered enough and was in a such a tattered state, that it was shocked to meet people genuinely interested in getting it right.

My first dance performance freshmen year, I remember almost tripping over my next step, hearing a stark “Go ZUH-ONG!!!!! ” amidst the crowd. That was it, another turning point – the perfect time to grow out of the nickname phase.

Vietnamese explained

In Vietnamese, there are 2 “D” s in the alphabet and no “Z” s:

You have:  Đ which is pronounced like an English D 

          and:  D which is pronounced like an English Z 

Hence, my name!

I don’t really blame people for getting it wrong though. It’s a tough nut to crack even for Vietnamese, especially children. They usually say “Dua” or “Zuh” instead, which means Melon. There’s another one to my nickname collection. And I haven’t even started on the accents, Duong in Vietnamese is written like this: Dương.

The farthest thing from being unique

Both my parents’ names begin with D. They were pressed in a weird, perfectionist way to name their first child with a D word as well. My mom described the moment of an angry nurse tapping a pen on the side of the bed: “Either you give me a name now, or I’ll name your child for you on the birth certificate, hurry up” (That’s just how you were treated back in those food ration days in Vietnam) 

Unfortunate for me, it was the decade of hundreds of Vietnamese graduates coming back from the former Soviet Union, and everyone was naming their daughters : Thùy Dương , which means Russian Willow.

And so, with seconds and a pissed-off nurse to go, I was hastily named Duong, along with probably the tens of thousands of babies born that year. Needless to say, virtually every Vietnamese class I’ve been in, there has been another Duong if not 4 more. Along with the diverse array up there, for the teacher’s convenience, I’ve also been called Duong A and Duong B, or Duong number 1 and Duong number 3.

I started a part-time job in a Vietnamese restaurant here in London the other day, and what do you reckon, there were 2 other “Duong”s. And yes, the nicknaming has commenced again. The manager insisted and you’ll have to come to the resto to find out what it is (shameless advertisement)

This post is getting way too narcissistic, but to end it off and just to set the record straight once and for all: My name is Duong (pronounced Zuh-Ong)./.

Fun fact: my first dog – a German shepherd – was named Dim, to carry on the D-family tradition.


US Elections Paint British News Red and Blue

Donkey and Elephant Caricature by Donkey Hotey (
Donkey and Elephant Caricature by Donkey Hotey (

4 years ago, at this exact time, I remember being in Massachusetts, huddling around a basement TV with half of the campus dorm, clutching our knees in anticipation, as the blues and reds began to spread across the CNN digital map. Never had I imagine, that by the next election, I’d be in London and that interestingly enough, that the spirit of the election would be no less evident in the British media. 

The US Election Night special on BBC just began 2 minutes ago, with a panel of mostly British political experts analyzing the every inch of the polls, British correspondents reporting in from all of the swing states, as well as Washington DC and Chicago. It’s overwhelming.

The US elections, to my surprise, have dominated the headlines, and running order of most popular TV, online and radio programs here on the other side of the Atlantic. Everything from BBC to the free Metro handouts, Obama and Romney’s faces have been plastered to the very front, angles taken to cover the elections as many as the stars in the American flag.

A love/hate relationship? 

For a country and a people who are stereotypically known as being cynical of Americans, constantly accusing their Anglophone counterparts of butchering their prized British English language, the UK, or at least, its media is particularly interested in its former colony’s Presidential elections.

I mean, to be honest, you’d be lucky to see a trace of the Tories or Liberal Dems of the UK in the States’ television. I came home to see my flatmate tuning into the BBC Special: US Election Day, on a live two-way with Washington DC.

She turned to me:

– “I really hope Obama wins
“Why would the UK be so interested in a presidential election an ocean away?”
It’s the US, the British may act like they hate Americans, but they couldn’t be more curious

Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman on NewsNight (more or less the British equivalent to Larry King on Late Night) stressed that this election is “crucial”  and that whoever would be the next leader could affect the “entire West” . 

So while it may overall still seem that Brits have a hypocritical eye on the Americans (another whole post on my debate against that), the other eye is a highly keen and curious one.

My sense is that, it’s the US, one of the most influential countries in the world, economically the most powerful. Entertainment wise, Hollywood dominates the world. Considering its past relationship with the US, as much as the UK would like to stay aloof, it is still very much eager to be updated with the American lot.

Blue-draped morning too blue? 

4 years ago, as the last swing state turned blue, I thought I was going to go deaf from the screams and screech that a women’s college of 2,100 would render you. I remember looking out the window, to see a girl on a tree, another topless, and a conga line of blue-faced people chanting OBAMA.

Will it be a blue-draped morning again? I won’t get into too much about my political preference for the US , but let’s just say, having been 4 years in Massachusetts, on one of the most liberal campuses of the US, I know not one soul who is voting for Romney. My facebook feed is as blue as a blue jay gets.

Much of the media that I’ve tuned into in the UK have tried to cover both sides, but there is an overall slightly sharper edge on Obama, with more discussion into how the President has or has not lived up to his voters 4 years ago, even celebrity sound bites supporting him. Whether this is because Obama is an incumbent more known to the public or there is a preference towards him can be tossed into the air.

Nevertheless, for me, this election has become less the cause and more the campaign, proven the most expensive amid the US facing still an economic downturn, jobless graduates, the poor still worst off. As hip as Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen gracing the campaign trail, as wonderful for many as a blue-draped morning may be, this whole election has become a collective of expensive stunts and grandiose words uncertain of holding truth, and more importantly, action.

PHOTO JOURNEYS: Auburn Love from New England

An inspiration from Regent’s Park, London

The inspiration for this post arose a few days ago when I couldn’t help but notice that autumn has graced London. The wet and drip of this British weather though has very much downplayed the beauty of its autumn leaves.

Therefore, this week ,Photo Journeys begin not with England, but New England – the beloved Northeastern region of the States to which I’m so attached. I was thrilled 2 hours ago when I found out that my alma-mater – Mount Holyoke College, topped the rank for the best campus to be on during autumn.

Call me biased, but our campus is undoubtedly one of the most splendid in the States (proven by Princeton Review, mind you). The first women’s college in the country, MtHolyoke is smack-dabbed in the middle of a small town called South Hadley (I lovingly/hatefully call “Shadley” for its cold, long winters) in Western Massachusetts.

And yet, you cannot speak of New England in general and our school in particular, without mentioning the gorgeous autumns – what I miss most from my 4 years there. The crisp air, auburn shades, reflections upon silent waters, and the infinite serenity that engulfs you on a stroll around the many lakes and back routes of the campus. Most of the photos here, which I took back in 2008, are of the back routes out and about MHC, I figure the more iconic ones with the buildings are readily available online. Without further ado, here is the Photo Journey series revisiting Mount Holyoke in Fall Shades! Enjoy ❤

Part of the Upper Lake, on a back route that creates a little forest semi-encircling the campus
Mohos (as the colloquial term goes for students) are known for having one of the biggest equestrian facilities in the country, the route that meanders along Upper Lake, through the woods, will lead you to meet the lovely horses on campus
Lower Lake is the more apparent of lakes on campus, sitting right across from the campus center, it shines the most in autumn
This white goose owns the Lower Lake, literally. He has been named everything you could think of, Alberta, Danny, Roberto, Alejandro ….my friends and I call him Ronaldo. Don’t let his elegant stride across the water fool you, the clamorous horn-beaked beast is unleashed once onto the bank, especially if you have food in hand, or if you go near any one of his ‘bitches’ – the familiar black and beige Canadian geese.
This is a little outside of Mount Holyoke, up on a mountain overlooking the Connecticut River, this is what New England autumns are all about!
And here’s me, 4 years ago! 🙂

[Vietnam] A country – NOT a war

My first day of Asian History in a public high school in Washington DC, a pan of the room and I found myself a loner amidst a group of American Caucasians. Considering the content of the course, all attention veered towards the obviously Asian girl across the room, as the teacher asked where I was from. “Vietnam”, I replied, to which the teacher posed to the class “What do we all know about Vietnam?” Hands popped to the air, as 8 proclaimed “Vietnam War”, while one boy enthusiastically shouted “Rambo”, and that was the end of it.

Throughout my next 6 years of living and meeting people in America, I would come to realize that in most minds here, Vietnam is seen no more than the notion of the “Vietnam War”. It’s a historical period so engrained in the memory of Americans and so popular for the anti-war spirit it inspired in American and global youths during the 1960s, that it has become the only perception most people have of Vietnam.

I’ve met people, who, in our second or third conversation, would hesitate before reticently asking me “So, do Vietnamese people still hate Americans?” or stories of veterans, who fear ever coming back to Vietnam not purely because of the revival of traumatic experiences but mostly, because they unconsciously assume that Vietnamese people “are not over it”.

Terminology-wise, first off, Vietnamese people have never referred to the period between 1954 and 1975 as the Vietnam War. It was never our choice to bring war upon us and naming the intentional efforts of the American government to colonize Vietnam – the Vietnam War, to Vietnamese people, is incomprehensible. Given our 1,000 years of rule by the Chinese and 100 years of colonization by the French before, the American invasion would be known simply as the American war.

I don’t blame the general knowledge of Vietnam being limited to the notion of war. We are, after all, a nation shaped by war and resistance, losing generations of Vietnamese to the battlefield while our society, today, is still riddled with unresolved consequences from the war. 37 years after the guns have fallen silent, ordinances and mines still dot our terrain threatening to explode at any minute and children born today live still with congenital disabilities due to the effects of Agent Orange. While the war is an inseparable part of Vietnam’s identity, however,  it is not the whole of it.

Hundreds of years of colonization have taught the Vietnamese to fully embrace their achieved independence and nearly 4 decades have been enough to see the Southeast Asian nation forge ahead first off, economically and more so, mentally past the war.

In sentiments to Americans, when he was alive, my grandfather, a witness to and active citizen in Vietnamese resistance against both the French and American invasion, stressed how many Vietnamese during and more so, after the war understood that it was the then American government and not the American people that their generation was fighting. While Vietnamese people may hold resentment towards the war, and what it took away and left behind in its course of destruction, I believe I speak for many when I say, we don’t hold a grudge towards the US as a nation and certainly not as a people. Let me take half a step back on my word to also note that there is no divide between black and white here, we must understand that even though it was a war between Vietnamese and Americans, there were Vietnamese on the side of Americans and Americans supporting the cause of the Vietnamese.  That grey area alone offers space for many questions and analysis into how the war was perceived then and even now. The opinion provided here is therefore, my general prospective on Vietnam today.

There are the Americans who fought endlessly against the American war in Vietnam, actively so in the series of protests iconic of the 1960s. There are then are untold stories of American youths who came to Vietnam to volunteer and even American veterans who only realized the war’s lack of purpose when their fingers hovered over the trigger on the battlefront. Vietnamese people receive their stories and sentiments with an open mind and hospitality.

I won’t go into how the economic growth has affected Vietnam, the perks and downsides are 100 posts in themselves, but it has certainly changed the face of Vietnam – a nation constantly struggling to balance the concept of communism, which had pulled it through the war, with its aspirations now to compete with its capitalist counterparts in becoming an economically-thriving country. You could say, Vietnamese society like any other modern society has a range of multi-faceted issues to face with, everything ranging from rising petrol prices, to motorbike congestion, to support to the shrinking rurality, to your everyday tabloid story about celebrities showing too much skin. It has so much to look forward to and so much to deal with rather than hold itself in a standstill to lament the war. This is not to say it should neglect working upon resolving the aforementioned consequences of war.

The S-shaped nation is also a beautiful one, a melting pot of cultures with its 53 ethnic groups and call me biased, but it has one of the best cuisines in the world.  Vietnam is imbued with history and culture. It stands at a crossroad between the old and new, the oriental and occidental, tradition and innovation, it aspires to grow, it struggles to face with daily national and regional challenges, it is in its own right, a country, NOT a war.

PS: this was from a short exercise this afternoon in class – very much not well analysed, sorry 😦

[Babbles] Of whacked-out events and missing MHC

In a matter of a week, an earthquake with ensuing aftershocks hit the East Coast, meanwhile Hurricane Irene  is lurking somewhere in the Atlantic, ready to rummage in as well. I know the earthquake was only moderate, but a piece of the National Cathedral – my beloved in DC, broke off for crying out loud and the 150-year-old Smithsonian tower, my home for two summers now has cracks all over…And who would have suspected a freaking tremor let alone an entire earthquake in the East Coast, felt up to New England, for that matter?

I hadn’t been back to the school’s website in so long, but today found myself opening the burnt orangey/yellow page that was my homepage for 4 years again to this:

A warning on Hurricane Irene, possible case of flooding and “loss of communications” on campus grounds. I don’t think I recall ever having to deal with anything as huge , with the exception of that snow storm, Valentines’ Day of 2007 when my PVTA bus was stuck on Rt 116 for 4 hours. But again, that’s snow, a snow storm in New England is as common as campus breakfast: occasionally loved, frequently neglected, and best avoided…but flooding? Nature’s gone and whacked out in the States with this series of happenings I’m telling you and ,I have no idea how serious all of this is going to get, but I’m crossing my fingers from Hanoi here for the safest and best over there. The status from which I got this link off of on facebook compared Irene to a category 1 storm in Vietnam which is nothing…but I’m doubting those remarks considering how everyone on the East Coasts seem quite flustered with it all. The fact that it’s a hurricane coming to the Pioneer Valley alone (MHC context wise), that’s enough to get your pants tied up in a bunch. Keep me updated, I am, you know, half way around the world here. Glad to hear some of you (you know who you are ) are at least stocking up, be it booze and chips, you have the awareness and preparation mode set, lol 😀

Missing MHC, Missing DC, thoughts to all my loved ones, that includes people and structures! (no more trees falling on campus dorms, please)

[Heart Snippets] Congrats Class of 2011!

MHC Laurel Parade - Graduation, May 2009

Here’s to this year’s graduating class! Hope you girls are feeling all of the excitement, anxiety, “what the hell am I going to do with my life”-joys today…^^ I haven’t come to fathom the fact that the last time I were in those shoes was exactly two years ago, it’s indescribable, how quickly time flies. I miss Mount Holyoke, the girls, those long-ass, laugh and eat till you drop VSA cooking sessions, Bhangra!, the greenhouse, the lakes gleaming during the autumn days, M&Cs, the PVTA, Route 116, Ronaldo-the white goose, the libraryy!, Chef Jeff Cookies, the French department lounge, Mead Hall, swiping cards at Blanchard, Prospect’s awesome fried dough, even Shadley and its Main Moon freaking food-poisoning Chinese resto…too much to name, all this nostalgia suddenly building up….much love my dear Mohos!

[Hanoi] Alive and well….split

Photo from my trip to Munich (April 2008)

Yes, I am indeed. My posts may be precariously written at odd hours such as these but they are the breadcrumbs on the trail leading towards my existence for those who care.

8 more days is it? and I’ll have been back here for a complete half a year, 6 months of what I had originally envision for 6 years to be quite daunting. I guess I really never thought about how living in such different places for long periods of time could so distinctively shape me or divide me? I wish to think that it’s an amalgamation of characters that defines who I am right now, you know, someone very much Vietnamese, attuned to the habits and traditions of the culture here, yet completely aware of balancing that  knowledge with the Western life and thoughts that I have unconsciously and very much, naturally adopted. But I can’t help to think that it’s not always that positive…balance is harder than I had imagined, and I only find myself wondering about a case of split identity. What about the moments where what I think I should be [ you know the “when in rome, do as the romans do” scenario] and what I have learned to be [the typical “follow your dreams” lessons], what happens when these two clashes….?  Now this happens to me on a daily basis, and may I just give the answer in 3 words – “I get stuck” . I would hope it to be something like “follow your intuition”…but intuition is my identity, my identity is split, which road do I then take?