I can already imagine the faces. Crinkled noses, slack-mouthed gapes, eyebrows drawing together in frustration — or maybe worry. Three lines creep across their foreheads, accompanied by a nervous scratch of the jaw, a bite of the lip, or a clasping of sweaty hands. Perhaps I’m at a restaurant reserving a table for two. Or I’m at Annenberg, exchanging numbers with someone I just met. No matter the circumstance, my new name will warrant confusion to all who dare speak it. The same words will inevitably present themself: Could you repeat that?
On New Year’s Eve of this year, I printed out Form CJP 27, got it notarized at the local Commerce Bank, and tenderly placed it in a manila folder alongside a certified, long-form copy of my birth certificate and a CVS money order of $180. One last deliberation, one final breath, and I slipped out of the house without telling a soul, taking the family car through miles of Central Mass. woodland to file for a name change. The process to turn Ryan Nguyễn into Ryan Đoàn-Nguyễn had begun.
Ryan Đoàn-Nguyễn. It’s quite the mouthful for the average English speaker, bound to make taking attendance a hell of an experience. But when I stepped into the biting December air after an hour at the Worcester Probate and Family Court, a gust of wind collapsing onto my cheek, Ryan Đoàn-Nguyễn was what I shouted into the skies, and it felt perfect. I felt like a new hire entering the workplace of their dream job. Like a housewife leaving her marriage after years of discontent. I was standing at the steps of a reimagined future — an ocean of possibility. New name. New year. New me.
Yet every time I tell people about my name change, they never fail to remind me of the pains of hyphenated life. Think of the struggle with medical documents and plane tickets, the computer systems and insurance, points out my father, with the economical attitude of an engineer. Imagine spelling your name over the phone, and consider the time it’ll take for your Harvard records and email address to reflect the change, informs my academic advisor. We already butcher your last name, joke my friends, a second part will be impossible.
Believe me, though. I’ve run through every scenario, every pain and troubling obstacle, a thousand times over. This name change was never a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was the culmination of months of dreaming as I rummaged through articles of others who’d done it themselves, countless hours researching mass.gov to understand Massachusetts name change law inside and out, and one too many sleepless nights spent conducting mental cost-benefit analysis on the tiles of my ceiling. It was the apex of head-scratching reflection and the jolting realization that what I had carried for 19 years through this world would no longer be the same.
Still, the concerned relative asks: Why on Earth am I making my already difficult name even harder?
The love I have for my family is paramount. Đoàn, my current middle name, is my mother’s name. It takes me to the handbuilt house of Ông Ngoại, my grandfather, and scorching summers spent in West Coast sun. It brings me back to eight aunts and one spirited uncle, their laughter spilling through the screen door into sticky evening air as we reset the mahjong table for our twentieth round. It carries me to youthful moments in the company of twelve cousins — chasing geckos together across stucco walls; sledding down grassy hills on tacky pieces of cardboard; sharing bites of backyard-grown mangosteen, soursop, and dragon’s eye; and placing bets with dollar bills as we hover cross-legged around a bầu cua cá cọp mat.
Đoàn ties me to Bà Ngoại, my grandmother, who inspires the life I want to lead. Đoàn is the two of us conversing into the thick of night to the hums of crickets and cicadas, her spinning tales with that signature fierce aura about her. Đoàn is her chronicling the murder of her mother, the dreams of American liberty, the spine-chilling moments she hid under floorboards with ten children, breaths held as the men above searched for traitors. Đoàn is the South China Sea’s sharp sting when they reached Pulau Bidong and capsized the overcrowded fishing boat. Đoàn is refusing to be pushed back into the deadly waves. Đoàn is equal parts joyous and painful. Đoàn is messy. Đoàn is crooked. Đoàn is home.
And there’s a deliberateness to the changing of my name — in challenging the fated, predetermined, and powerful — that imbues me with a newfound sense of agency. Perhaps bringing my mother to the forefront of my name constitutes just the slightest act of resistance against patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal Vietnamese customs. Maybe systemic change can come from forcing people to stumble on yet another foreign syllable in this country where my language once wasn’t welcome. The satisfaction might be due in part to my silly desire to be the only one on campus with my name (yes, there’s another Ryan Nguyễn in Harvard’s Class of ’25). All I know is that my new name feels right, and that’s enough of a reason for me.
A name is the one passed-down thing you forever carry with you. Should your house burn down or your belongings disappear, you still have your name. So, throw all the hurdles you want at me. Mispronounce me as many times as you want. I’m making my name mine, and I’m wearing it with honor.
Ryan H. Đoàn-Nguyễn, ’25, a Crimson News comper, lives in Matthews Hall.