My Research Passion: Becoming “Linda”

Becoming Joey

José’s ten.
Looks six by size,
twenty in the eyes.

Down
the school-morning street
José ambles along
dotted lines of busses and cars
spitting exhaust like expletives.
They disturb his meditation,
a few final moments of peace.

José is frail but upright.
Smartly stitched hand-me-downs
hang from his slenderness.
Soles flop beneath battered shoes,
long worn but hanging on
if only by a lace.

José pauses in the schoolyard
where fairer kids laugh and scurry unaware
of this, his battle;
of this, his burden;
of these, his borderlands.
Behind him: cracked
sidewalks, frosted nights,
belonging.
Before him: playgrounds manicured,
classrooms heated against
some sorts of cold,
earnest lessons about a world
that doesn’t see him. 

Still José moves forward;
what feels in his stomach
a backward sort of forward.

Pausing in the doorway
José straightens his shirt,
trying to dust away
the stains of ancestry. 

Pausing in the doorway
José clears his throat,
trying to spit away
his alien voice.

Only then,
becoming Joey,
he crosses
into school.

(Republished with permission from Paul C. Gorski)

This poem speaks to me in so many ways in that it reminds me –and so many others–immigrant story. Growing up. I was given a name “Tu Nhi” or in translation, First Born. It was a respectful name that conveyed my birth order and the significance of my position as the eldest of three children. My siblings were Chieu and Tu Lan. Second-born and third-born did not carry as much significance as first-born.

When we started school in Morrisville, Pennsylvania after arrival from a Malaysian refugee camp in the 1979. I skipped kindergarten and started first grade. Throughout my educational experience, my first days always went like this:

“Clay Anderson.”

“Here,”

“Robyn Clarke.”

“Here.”

“Heather Parr.”

Uhhhh…uuumm….Pause.

My teacher was struggling to pronounce my name, so I stepped in to help. That always been my first-day-of-school experience, which I do not bemoan. However, when I was a senior in college, trying to find a good job with medical insurance, I got another collective societal response.

“Mr. Pham, we regret to inform…”

Suddenly, I became my Dad, Mr. Pham. My name was foreign, difficult to spell, even more difficult to pronounce, and gender neutral. After sending 30-40 resumes, I realized that my name was “too foreign” for Human Resources personnel. So, I conducted an experiment. I sent out resumes with different first names: Elizabeth Pham, Samantha Pham, Anna Pham.

One weekend when I was home from college, I casually asked my aunt which name she liked. Without hesitation, she said, “Linda.”

So, I started sending out resumes with “Linda Pham,” and it worked! I had several interviews and finally landed a job with Prentice Hall. Go figure. I did not change anything else on my resume except my first name.

Names are important.

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