By Saymoukda Vongsay
Why My Name Really Isn’t My Name
I didn’t know that my name was Saymoukda Vongsay until I started preschool at Headstart on Dale Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I also didn’t know that the ‘u’ in my first name was interchangeable with the letter ‘o’ because no one ever corrected me when I wrote it either way. ‘What kind of person doesn’t know their full name?’ you ask. To my defense, prior to preschool everyone in my family and all of the faces in my immediate life called me by my nickname Thoun – except I didn’t know that it was a nickname, I just thought it was my name name. At age eight an uncle explained that my name name, Saymoukda, means ‘pearl necklace’ in Lao. In middle school Mr. Smith asked if I wanted to shorten my name to Say to accommodate my classmates. My sophomore year in high school, a friend roared into laughter after I told her the story behind my name. “Your name is kind of naughty,” she said. I asked why and with a straight face she she spoke slowly, “A pearl necklace is a sexual act.” I got confused so she explained in detail. My mouth dropped in shock and disgust. During the next 3 class periods, I made a mental roster of names for when I was old enough to legally change it.
When I came spluttering out of my mother one breezy Thursday afternoon in 1981, an American doctor scooped me onto an awaiting towel held out by an American nurse. My mother said the nurse hummed and danced along to the music blaring from her headphones during the entire birthing. After she wiped off the blood and tissue from my yellow body, she handed me to my mother with a huge smile then danced into the background. After a week or two had gone by, my mother finally knew what to name me, Moukthida, and told my father to rush to the clinic to finalize my birth certificate. He weaved his way to the clinic through a labyrinth of stilt huts, dusty makeshift cafes, and strolling missionaries in the refugee camp. When he came home and produced my birth certificate, and after my mother looked it over, she screamed. He had written down Saymoukda instead of Moukthida. He blamed over excitement for having forgotten on the way. “But at least I remembered the Mouk part,” he said cheerily “she’s still a pearl, its just that now, she’s a precious pearl necklace.” My father said I cooed after he said that.
“Why My Name Isn’t My Name” is a work-in-progress
When Everything Was Everything
1. Food stamps in my pockets. Two dollars worth of Now and Laters. Green saliva, couldn’t swallow quick enough. Standing nervous. Red light on Dale Street. Crossed the bridge over Hwy 94. Trekking back to St. Albans. Candy wrappers clenched tight. Waved good-bye to Tiger Jack.
2. Every Friday Bhet opens the screen door and announces, “Pahw mah la, pahw mah la!!” All afternoon we’ve waited. In my father’s tan Izuzu truck we drove to Hudson. Mom buys lottery tickets for her, bags of Funyuns and a giant slurpie for us. Bhet likes the blue ones — they stain his tongue so good, makes a point to show me every time. On the way home, mom spends imaginary millions in out-loud daydreams. Blue-lipped smiling, Bhet tells me we are like kings in Dad’s gold chariot. I agreed.
3. Bowl cuts. Red-handle scissors.
4. Holding my Korean blanket, rolled under my arms. Dad carried trash bags, everything we owned, slung over his shoulders. Tiny feet tired from walking, twelve blocks to our new home. Stopping every other he asks, “Ee la, nyang die yoo baw?” Every time, looking up, forcing smile, “Doiy, ee pahw.”
5. 692 North St., St. Paul. 250 Oxford Str. North, St. Paul. 308 North St. Albans, St. Paul. 3634 15th Ave. South, Mpls. 1090 York Ave., St. Paul. 130 Bates Ave., St. Paul.
6. “Mah nee, ee Thoun,” Bhet says. I follow him to his first grade classroom, passing cubbies, water color family portraits, and a picture of Jesus the Christ. He lifts up the lid of his school desk, no. 2 pencils with bite marks, color crayons, and two small boxes of Sunmaid raisins. He hands me one and smiles, showing teeth.
7. I interrupted my class when I walked in, returned from an ESL session. Mr. Smith made everyone read out loud, stopping when they want to. No one ever reads more than three sentences from The Cay. They giggled and snickered on my turn. That day, I read two chapters without stopping to breathe. The snickering, ridiculing, and ESL sessions stopped after that.
8. I went to Head Start preschool. Bhet went to Saint Mark’s Catholic school.
9. I killed my father’s lawn one summer with my blue plastic pool. Fresh out the bag Disney underwear and bare chested, grass blades speckled my feet and ankles, I watched as the grinning crocodile begins to swim, hidden sometimes by the sun’s reflection, until water spills tiny waterfalls over the brim.
10. Hand-me-down jeans, ripped, and dirtied at the knee. Working in cucumber fields. Picking only the ones as big as my 5 year old hands.
11. Grocery store. Pharmacy. Welfare office. Parent-teacher conferences. All are unmaneuverable without your double tongue, looking up to your right, up to your left, at adult mouths moving and adult ears, waiting, listening to everything lost in an 8 year old’s interpretation.
12. Carrying a roll of toilet paper in a wrinkled over-used plastic bag, I jumped into my father’s Izuzu. Seldom visible at 3 A.M., the moon can’t hear Father singing. During the hour drive to a Christmas wreath-making factory, suspended between awake and weary. Mother cups my face with her sap-dried hands, dirt under her nails, plants kisses before unrolling 6, 8, 10 sheets to blow the dust out of her nose. Her hand rakes my hair and neck leaving dried flakes of sap, the smell of pine, the residual optimism she still has.
13. The art of haggling with the Hmong grandmothers at the Farmers Market is not for the meek minded.
14. Be the first to line up in front of the food truck before its back door slide up, thundering over the murmurings. Everyone wonders if they’ll get a bag of frozen chicken this time. Or angel food cake, two days passed the expiration date. I exchange all of my cheeses for boxes of rice with anyone who doesn’t look like me.
15. Mrs. Jaquelin traded cassette tapes with mom every week. Roy Ayers, Sade, and Dolly Parton for Thai singers I only knew by face.
2. Pahw mah la, pahw mah la!! (Dad is here! Dad is here!)
4. Ee la, nyang die yoo baw? (Babygirl, are you okay to walk?); Doiy, ee pahw. (Yes sir, Daddy.)
6. Mah nee, ee Thoun. (Come here, Thoun.)