• Huyen Hac Helen Tran on reclaiming her traditional name. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
First meant to buoy my school interactions as other kids found it difficult to say my name, Helen began to follow me throughout my life more prominent than my birthname.
By
Huyen Hac Helen Tran

22 Feb 2021 - 9:26 AM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2021 - 9:34 AM

Long ago one’s gone riding the yellow crane,
all that remained is the Yellow Crane Tower.
Once the yellow crane left it will never return,
for one thousand years the clouds wandered carelessly.
The clear river reflects each Hanyang tree,
fragrant grasses lushly grow on Parrot Island.
At sunset, which direction leads to my hometown?
One could not help feeling melancholy along the misty river.

The Yellow Crane Tower, Cui Hao


At a house party one night in 2014 I tell someone my parents love The Beatles. I had just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Norweigan Wood and with glossy eyes, and a desperate yearning for relevance, I lie that I am named after the song Blackbird. I do this because they asked the “origin” behind my exotic Vietnamese name, so I attempt to tether myself to their world, and rid myself of my otherness.

I remember virtually nothing about this party, except that I don a black plastic choker around my neck and an AA tennis skirt, and that the person I lie to comments on how cool my name is. By the time this moment is over, I will decide to tell people this story again and again. Mostly strangers, sometimes at parties, sometimes on the internet. It ticks all the boxes for me. I think, I’m a cool girl, right? There’s a nod to pop culture here, something they’d know and love. This moment isolated only for its self-motivated treachery is just one among many where I’ve come into contention with my own name.

But the origin of my name is tethered elsewhere and to use my name is to conjure up the century’s old poem The Yellow Crane Tower. In AD 223, the Yellow Crane Tower was built in Wuhan, China. It was the first of many iterations until the one built in 1981, that stands today as a tourist attraction. Before the name Wuhan was known as the contagious epicentre of the COVID-19 virus, it was a city written about by poets such as Cui Hao and Li Bai. My parents loved Cui Hao’s poem about the tower so deeply that they named their first daughter after it, and their following children after that. I know that as a child in Vietnamese language classes, or in front of family friends, adults would comment on how beautiful the names of my siblings and I were. Yellow Crane, Silver Crane, Tall Crane and Black Crane. Huyen Hac, Black Crane - that’s me.

My passport, driver’s license and birth certificate read Huyen Hac Tran, a westernised version of Trần Huyên Hạc. Like many other children of Vietnamese migrants, I was also given an English name. First meant to buoy my school interactions as other kids found it difficult to say my name, Helen then began to follow me throughout my life more prominent than my birthname. My resumes used to say Helen Tran. All my friends call me Helen. When I began to share my writing, Huyen Hac was once again nowhere to be seen.

My dream was always to be published, so when the time came in the university student magazine or at the fashion magazine I was interning at, I scrutinised what name to publish under. Helen was the obvious and first choice, and I signed off without a second thought. But soon something began to nag at my core. It seemed wrong to leave out my Vietnamese name. How then, to write my name and present myself? Did it even matter that much?

Perhaps it was my Confucian upbringing that rang the alarm bells in me, telling me that I needed to honour my parents with my penname. It didn’t matter that I was at the very beginning of my writing career, every morsel of writing was threaded through them, through the name and the life they’d given me. But I knew it was more than this. When it came to writing, what I cared most about was authenticity and the power in it, even when I found it difficult and often failed to show it in my own actions. I slowly became drawn to the various ways my name could be written; each formation completely new to me. In the author’s note of her novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, lê thi diem thúy writes that she had finally managed to break her name down, rebuild it and reclaim it as her own through her own styling of it. First, in the Vietnamese way (last name first) and then in all lowercase, purely because she prefers the way it runs.

I slowly became drawn to the various ways my name could be written; each formation completely new to me.

My decision came when I understood this reclamation for myself. I took the traces, the remnants and glaring impressions in my being and I chose the name that encapsulated all of it. To use Huyen Hac Helen Tran, it is to give thanks first to my parents, and to the poem that connects my siblings and I. It is a bastardisation of my name that I approve of, dispelling the accents but still pronouncing them the same, weaving the English and Vietnamese languages together in the span of five syllables.

In March 2020, my eldest sister and I were seated in our living room, watching the constant news cycle as Wuhan came up in blaring red letters. She tells me she wants to go there once international travel is safe again, and quips that plane tickets will be extra cheap, and we can finally all see where her name comes from. I laughed, pretended to turn my nose up at her. I took from her stringent disregard for the lazy susan of racist rhetoric surrounding Wuhan, and Asian people, power. Power not to let something disappear. Power to uncover and remember. I wondered then, what is a name? And I know now it is a vessel, one that cannot be destroyed. It’s a black crane, it’s a tower, it’s the direction to a hometown.

This story has been published in partnership with The Writing Zone, a mentoring program for young writers from Western Sydney, hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.

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