Approximately 2% of people in America have the surname ‘Smith’ or ‘Johnson’. In fact, Smith is the most prevalent surname in America, England, and Australia, making it the most common surname in the entire Anglosphere.
Despite this, it is rarely assumed that people bearing this same surname are likely to be related.
This, unfortunately, does not seem to apply to the surname ‘Nguyen’; the most common surname in Vietnam (applying to approximately 40% of the population), and a very popular name in Asia in general.
When Alice, Kim, Theresa and Vivian (whom all share the surname Nguyen) grew tired of the assumption that the four of them were related, they used their alphabetical grouping in their high school yearbook to make a point about western assumptions regarding Asian surnames.
They used the individual captions below their names in the yearbook to spell out the words “WE ARE NOT RELATED.”
The picture was uploaded to Reddit and gathered thousands of upvotes.
The surname Nguyen is exceptionally popular for a number of reasons relating to the history of Vietnam:
1232: After the Lý Dynasty was overthrown by Trần Thủ Độ, he forced their descendants to change their surnames to Nguyễn.
1400: When the last Trần emperor was overthrown by Hồ Quý Ly, he killed many of Trần’s descendants.
1407: When the Hồ Dynasty collapsed, many of his descendants changed their surname to Nguyễn in fear of retribution.
1592: During the collapse of the Mạc Dynasty, many of the descendants changed their surname to Nguyễn.
1802: When the Nguyễn Dynasty (the descendants of the Nguyễn Lords) took power, they awarded many people the surname Nguyễn during their rule, and many criminals also changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid prosecution.
The surname Nguyen is not only common in Asia, but is the 7th most common surname in Australia, 54th most common in France, 56th most common in Norway, 57th most common in the U.S, and is the most common non-Czech surname in the Czech republic.
This yearbook stunt is a microcosm of a western misunderstanding about the structure of Asian surnames. Across much of Asia, it is more common to place the family name ahead of the given name. A person can have two separate names which form one given name, and the concept of middle names can vary drastically.
In Vietnamese the ‘middle name’ which appears can actually be used to determine gender. Nguyen Van Minh is a male name, where Nguyen Thi Minh is female.
Cambodians do not have a middle name as such, but may have ‘two first names’, for example; Sam Sok Bo, when used in the Anglosphere, would be ‘Mr Sam’, with the first name ‘Sok Bo’.
With the prevalence of Western Culture influencing a great deal of the world, it can often be difficult for Westerners to wrap their head around the idea of different systems, particularly when it comes to what seem like the simplest conventions; such as names.
In four words, these girls managed to leave a lasting impression on their fellow students, reminding them in a witty and humorous way that there within a person’s name, there is a footprint of their culture and history, which must be respected.