The story behind my Vietnamese name, Thảo

You’ve seen my Vietnamese name, Thảo, all over this site but I’ve never explained how I came to have a Vietnamese name and why it’s Thảo.

Thảo in Tây Ninh

The problem I faced

The problem of what to call myself always occurs outside of English-speaking countries. Nowadays I use my middle name, Elisabeth, but when I first went to Vietnam I was still using my first name, Ruth.

When embarking on my Asian adventure in 2010, it slipped my mind that I’d had difficulties with my name in the past so I started teaching with the name Ruth. Cue the problems. The ‘th’ sound (phoneme θ) doesn’t appear in many languages. This error alone is not a big deal but the initial ‘r’ can be tricky too. From Vietnam to Italy I’ve had people struggle with that sound and have even been asked if my name starts with ‘br’!?

A lot of my students in Vietnam simply addressed me as ‘Teacher’ as opposed to my title, Ms Ruth (or nowadays, Ms Elisabeth). While this form of address is a common and respectful thing to do in Vietnam, I do wonder if I had a higher occurrence of this due to the difficulty of pronouncing my name.

So my students found a way around the problem, but there was still the issue of interactions outside of work.

Roo

When speaking English with people, my name was sometimes a difficulty, often not. However, when speaking Vietnamese my name was just too strange. It Vietnamized as ‘Ru’. I’ve known a Ru and a Rew before but mostly the name reminds me of Roo from Winnie the Pooh.

Later, one of my Vietnamese teachers refused to call me Thảo and pronounced Elisabeth with every syllable stressed. It was kinda painful to listen to.

Even for myself, when I switch to English pronunciation mid-sentence to say my name, this affects my subsequent Vietnamese pronunciation (I slip into a stronger English accent).

The solution: use a Vietnamese name

The simple and obvious solution was to choose a Vietnamese name.

I expressed this desire to some of my friends and randomly one friend had a list of his classmates’ names on him that day. Together they went through the list and one of them read out female names that they liked. If they all agreed that it was a nice name, it was then my turn to repeat it.

Some names I couldn’t pronounce well, other fared a little better – with two friends thinking my pronunciation was up to par but the other one thinking I was a little off. Finally we got to Thảo. I repeated it successfully to a unanimous opinion not once but three times in a row.

At this point we got into the meaning. As the pool of Vietnamese names is relatively small, most people know the meaning of common names. Thảo has two meanings – the first one I heard is along the lines of ‘herbal’. The second is about respecting your parents or ‘honour’.

Thảo means herbal.

Thảo means herbal.

So there I had it – my Vietnamese name. Thảo.

Over to you: Do you have any problems with your name when abroad or when speaking a foreign language? Have you ever used, or would you consider using, another name?

Photo credit: degrassi and gabriel77

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