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What's in a name

By De Tran

Every year, when the new San Jose telephone book arrives, I check to see how many De Trans are listed. This year there are six. A quick search on the World Wide Web turned up 27 other De Trans listed somewhere in the United States. Colorado, Florida, Oklahoma, Nevada and Washington listed one each; Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia boasted two. California, not surprisingly, leads with 14 De Trans. Not bad for a name I acquired by accident.

My name actually is Tran Thanh Do. But when our family came to the United States, officials misspelled it as Tran Thanh De.

Still, De is a good name. It's versatile. De is a preposition in French and Spanish. And De is "Ed" spelled backward. In fact, De Tran spelled backward is Ed Nart. The American immigration history is replete with misspelled names. My friend, Timothy Patrick Goodman, said immigration officials botched it so badly that his grandfather was given the surname Goodman when he arrived to New York City around the turn of the century. And that, he said, was how a freckled-faced, red-haired Irish lad-"Opie" to his friends-inherited a Jewish last name.

Living in a new country involves more than just adapting to a new environment. a new language, a new culture. It also involves having one's name altered, mis-pronounced. It sometimes means dropping the accent marks that accompanied one name since birth.

German names lose their umlauts; Latinos drop their tildes; Chinese, Japanese and Koreans change their names to conform with English phonetics. Vietnamese eliminate their accent marks.

Sometimes, the very order of one's name is reversed.

I My current name, for example, would be Tran De in Vietnam. In the United States, after much confusion, almost all Vietnamese immigrants adapt the Western standard by putting their surname last and their given name first. Many also drop their middle name to cut down on potential misspellings.

That was how the already-modified Tran Thanh De became De Tran. At least six De Trans in Santa Clara County had the same idea. Once I applied for loan and freaked out when the TRW credit reported that I owed Emporium Capwell $10,000. It was another De Tran.

Tran is a common Vietnamese last name, much more prevalent than Smith or Garcia in the United States. But Tran is nothing compared to Nguyen-by far the most dominant surname. Nguyen is to Vietnamese last names what Microsoft is to the computing world. The Nguyens occupy seven page in the San Jose phone book.

While the following analysis is not exactly scientific, it offers a picture of the dominance of Nguyens, the No. 1 surname of homeowners in Santa Clara County. Take the current numbers of Nguyens, Smiths and Garcias in the San Jose phone book, compare them to the 1990 census, and this is what you get: The Nguyens would make up 6.5 percent of the Vietnamese-American population in San Jose and Santa Clara, while Smiths would only comprise 0.2 percent of whites and Garcias 0.4 percent of Latinos. And that doesn't even take into account the higher average household density of Vietnamese families.

The original boundaries of Vietnam included the northern part of today's Vietnam. A warlord named Nguyen Hoang conquered what is now southern Vietnam. Many of the Nguyens were the descendants of Nguyen Hoang, said Nguyen Van Dai, a San Francisco poet. King Bao Dai, Vietnam's last emperor, was a descendant of Nguyen Hoang, Dai said. In old Vietnamese society, Dai said, if someone contributed to the court, the emperor allowed that person to adopt the royal last name, a practice much like being knighted.

There ale other historical reasons for the prevalence of the Nguyen name. During the Tran Dynasty in the 11th to 13th centuries, many of the families of the prior dynasty courtesans - the Lys - changed their name to Nguyen to avoid persecution.

Writer Nguyen Qui Duc recalled in an interview that one Vietnamese New Year he was in Singapore where there are few Vietnamese residents. Homesick, he called up all the Nguyens in the Singaporean directory and wished them a happy new year.

Duc, too, recalled the time he was living in Sacramento. He was surprised to find that some of Vietnamese there had first names like Francisco and Juan. It turned out that they were advised to pick an American names when they became naturalized. They decided to choose the names of their American neighbors, who were mostly Latinos.

In polyglot America, perhaps names like Francisco Tran or Daniel Nguyen or Timothy Patrick Goodman won't seem odd at all. Perhaps one day, they'll be as American as apple pie-or at least apple strudel.

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