In honor of my 30th birthday (which happens to be today!), I decided to give myself the gift of a brand new white lab coat. After years of donning countless unflattering, standard-issue white coats from my various places of training, I figured I deserved an upgrade. I wanted something classic, feminine, and elegant. Something that was an accurate representation of my true inner self. Something that said DOCTOR on the chest!
I made my way to a medical supply warehouse and spent an afternoon trying on style after style until I found the perfect fit. The cut was slimming, the fabric was luxurious, and there were no mysterious stains in questionable places. SOLD! After a quick swipe of my credit card, the cashier led me to the back of the store, where their staff would personalize my new purchase by embroidering my name across the front.
It took several tries before we got it right. The woman misspelled my last name six or seven times, letting out a sigh of annoyed exasperation each time I gently informed her that she had mixed up the letters again. She became increasingly frustrated by the challenge of keeping my full name and title from being obscured by the lapel and armpit, muttering audibly, “Usually, when the girls have bigger breasts, I have more fabric to work with.” (And to think, I thought my cup size insecurities would be but a distant memory by the time I reached 30.) When her supervisor suggested that we take my first name out to make things easier, she enthusiastically agreed. “After all,” she said, “how many Doctor nuhhh-goooo-whatevers ARE there?”
Have you ever had one of those moments where you weren’t sure whether the right reaction was to laugh, cry, or be totally offended? This was one of those moments.
As I waited to receive the final product, I wandered the aisles of the store and realized that this woman’s unwitting comment had struck a chord somewhere much deeper than I had initially thought. It forced me to reflect on what carrying my name around with me had meant to me all these years.
At the tender age of 8, being “Diana Nguyen” meant having earned the highest number of gold stars of anyone in my 2nd grade class. I somewhat reluctantly—okay, very begrudgingly—shared this honor with a sweet, unassuming Japanese girl by the name of Hiromi Shiba. However, let it be noted that her equivalent achievement in the gold star department was only possible because yours truly was out sick with chickenpox for two full weeks of the academic year (just saying). Hiromi moved away shortly thereafter, and I have no idea what happened to her. Wouldn’t it be absolutely hilarious if she wound up becoming a dentist, too? Maybe if I run into her at an AGD meeting one day, I’ll finally have the chance to say, “YOU’RE GOING DOWN, SHIBA!”
Seriously, I’m really a normal person almost all of the time. I swear.
I would go on to earn a number of other titles and honors, some more remarkable than others. There was “Diana Nguyen, Most Responsible Student,” a designation that my 4th grade classmates bestowed upon me in a poll that also included “Most Popular” and “Best Athlete” (I probably don’t have to tell you that I wasn’t in the running for either of those). It took a few years before I realized that “Most Responsible” really meant “Least Interesting,” and by then it was too late to change everyone’s minds. No bother, I decided. I’d just keep chasing those gold stars.
But every year, without fail, teachers would stumble when it came to pronouncing my last name, choosing to mumble the consonants or avoid them altogether. Every first day of school included the painful ritual of taking attendance, as I would inevitably hear, “Diana... um... N... oh dear... Jesus. If your name is Diana, could you please just raise your... Oh, there you are. Thank goodness!” The other students would chuckle and whisper to each other, saying mean and ignorant things like, “What kind of weirdo name IS that, anyway??”
When I expressed the frustrations of being “Diana Nguyen, Some Kind of Asian” at school to my parents, their response registered somewhere between passionate outrage and theatrical farce. “YOU TELL THEM THAT NGUYEN IS THE NAME OF VIETNAMESE EMPERORS! IT’S IN HISTORY BOOKS! LET’S BRING YOUR ENCYCLOPEDIA TO SCHOOL TOMORROW AND SHOW IT TO ALL THOSE LOUSY KIDS!” Oh, bless my well-meaning parents. I love them so much. But even I knew that bringing an encyclopedia to school in an attempt to educate a bunch of blockheads was a bad idea.
In the years that followed, I would find my name printed all over--often misspelled, sure, but attached to an overwhelming number of impressive descriptors. “Diana Nguyen, Featured Soloist” was also “Diana Nguyen, Editor-in-Chief.” Later, “Diana Nguyen, Senior Class President” would address an audience of thousands as “Diana Nguyen, Commencement Speaker.” And finally, after thousands of hours of hard work, preparation, and sacrifice, “Diana Nguyen, Pre-Doctoral Candidate” was making her mark at NYU.
Fast-forward to my final year of dental school. I was engaged to the love of my life, I was eager to start my residency, and I was going to be one of MANY Nguyens walking across the stage at Lincoln Center in the spring. I started thinking about what my diploma would say, and how all my professional licenses and forms of identification would be printed from here on out. What would it be like when people finally started addressing me as “Doctor” before saying my name?
Many of my friends asked me if I would be taking my then-fiancé’s name after our wedding. A few even suggested that I drag him down to city hall and insist on getting hitched before graduation so I could make sure his name would wind up on my diploma and dental license. In fact, I have a lot of colleagues who freely admit that they purposely got married before leaving school for that exact reason. But would that reason be the right one for me?
I gave it some serious thought. I’m a feminist, but I believe in the value of tradition, too. My husband didn’t grow up experiencing the same name-related issues I did. Maybe by taking his name, I’d be less likely to ever have to endure them again. Perhaps there would be fewer awkward moments at the airport security gate: “Actually, we’re together.” Some dentists indelicately advised me that taking his name would make me “more marketable” (translation: less ethnic).
Of my friends and classmates, both dental and non-dental, there was no clear trend to be identified. There were those who couldn’t wait to discard all evidence of their previous unmarried lives and generate new identities under their husbands’ names. Others adamantly refused to give up their original names, or compromised through hyphenation. And some found unique ways to arrive at the middle of the road. My friend and classmate, Dr. Melissa Glazer, founder of an ultra-popular luxury scrubs label, practices with her husband’s last name; her company’s logo prominently displays the initials of her birth name.
After much deliberation, I’ve decided to stick with “Diana Nguyen, Doctor of Dental Surgery” for now and my husband was 100% supportive of my decision. There’s still a lot that I plan to do with this name. Check back here in a few years, when hopefully I’ll be signing my posts with “FAGD” added onto it, too. That’d be a real Nguyen-win situation, wouldn’t it?
Diana Nguyen, DDS