Updated: Sep 28, 2020
As mentioned in our conversation in Nguyễn in America, it can be confusing to see many other people share the same last name. Sometimes others think that you’re related while sometimes you think you could be related. So, where does Nguyễn come from and why do so many people have this last name? We used Google.
According to International Business Times, an estimated 40 percent of people in the country (and the Vietnamese diaspora) have Nguyễn as a last name. This is even more prevalent than "Kim" or "Park" in Korea and "Smith" and "Jones" in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Personally, I'm surprised O'Malley isn't included there.
The 2016 NextShark article “Why 40% of Vietnamese People have 'Nguyễn' for a Last Name” gives a historical context about how Dynasties forced or oftentimes swayed the people to change their last names:
The prevalence of Nguyễn can be traced way back to the 1200’s when Trần clan leader and general Trần Thủ Độ forced the descendants of the Lý to change their surname to Nguyễn after the Lý Dynasty was overthrown from power.
In 1400, Hồ Quý Ly overturned the Trần Dynasty, established himself as emperor and killed many of their descendants upon building the Hồ Dynasty. When it itself collapsed in 1407, in fear of retribution, many of Hồ descendants changed their surname to Nguyễn.
The same thing happened in 1592, upon the collapse of the Mạc Dynasty, and in 1802, when the Nguyễn Dynasty (the descendants of the Nguyễn Lords) took power. While others fled to China, most of the Vietnamese who feared being executed of the newly established regime chose to change their surnames to Nguyễn.
During its reign, the Nguyễn Dynasty awarded many people the surname Nguyễn. A lot of criminals also changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid being persecuted.
Not the glowing history that we all would like to hear and it probably makes tracing family lines a bit troublesome, but I would say there is a pride to being a Nguyễn. It’s recognizable on its own as a Vietnamese last name. No matter what country you’re in, for most of us in the Vietnamese Diaspora, finding another Nguyễn outside of Vietnam is like finding family, a connection to your homeland.
In addition to realizing there were many Vietnamese folks with the Nguyễn last name, I also noted some of the ways names were used. First, the name order I wrote in Vietnamese school was different from what I wrote at my American school. The Vietnamese list our family name first, a tradition that I believe the Vietnamese adopted during Chinese colonization for 1000 years.
Secondly, while Nguyễn Hương is uncommon among my American classmates, it’s the most common name combination in Vietnam. It also turns out that two of my paternal uncles and two of my maternal uncles have the same first name: 2 Khôi’s and 2 Khoa’s. Nieces and nephews use “Chu” for paternal uncles and “Cậu” for maternal uncles, one way to differentiate extended families. Among the adults, middle names are the identifiers. Our paternal uncle is Đang Khoa while our maternal uncle is Đức Khoa. It’s not always common to say the middle name and first name together, but in some instances it provides clarification to the individual.
Third, it’s not very common to have a nickname in Vietnamese. All our names are one syllable and I have rarely heard one used. Folks may choose to identify by their middle name as opposed to their first name, but for the most part, your given name is used.
At the end of the day, I think I speak for all of us that there is a comfort in knowing there are other Nguyễn’s out there. Whether they have grown up in Vietnam or established roots as immigrants elsewhere. When we’ve traveled to another state, we can find a Vietnamese restaurant and meet another Nguyễn. Immediately, my parents and the new faces share stories about their immigration and talk about living in their respective cities in the United States. There’s a sense of connection.
I’ve also reflected on the many memes and jokes about how a yearbook page can list rows and rows of Nguyễn’s yet none are related. While this wasn’t the case for my siblings or myself, we can only imagine the alienation and the pressure to assimilate. I hope that by recognizing the history of the name and the way that names are structured will help others find pride in being able to identify as a Nguyễn.
Growing Up Nguyễn is a story of four siblings holding onto our identity while fulfilling our parents’ dreams: the blessings and challenges of being Nguyễn in America.