Congratulations to N. Cao ’27 who was named a runner-up in the New York Times 2nd Annual 100-Word Narrative Contest for her entry, “Hidden Gem.” The newspaper challenged students to write a story about a meaningful life moment in just 100 words. They received nearly 13,000 tiny memoirs from teenagers around the world, and Cao was one of just 31 runners-up in the contest, along with 15 winners and 56 honorable mentions.
I am sorry for never defending you properly. When the American kindergarten teacher asked for my name, I gave her the heavy syllable in a nervous but strong whisper. I want to believe it was miscommunication and not that she gave up so easily, but her response echoed something strange: Nia—a new name replacing you, erasing me. I panicked and stayed silent, letting her believe; it was my first act of assimilation. I am Nia not because I have abandoned you but because I am still finding the courage to stand up for myself. Please wait for me.
Cao included an artist statement with her tiny memoir. She writes, “When I crossed seas at age four and moved from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam all the way to the land of the free and opportunity, I didn’t know I would lose my name in the process. Kindergarten was my first taste of reality when Ngọc became Nia, and I realized for the first time that my Vietnamese name was an inconvenience in America. I soon learned it was not only my kindergarten teacher who couldn’t pronounce it but also my classmates and educators that came afterwards. The worst were the substitutes who hesitated before it during roll call and proceeded to invent a new variation. Knock. Now. N-G-O-C. Going by Nia (nai-ah) makes life just a little easier. Nia is one correction while Ngọc is three that turn to five that turn to never mind.
“I hated my Vietnamese name for eight years, but when I realized the implications of going by a name I didn’t even choose, all I could feel was guilt for having shunned something so integral to my identity. Shame has followed me my whole life; first for having a Vietnamese name, and now for not being able to summon the courage to go by that name. I hope my tiny memoir will be able to resonate with others who share a similar experience but also force people to question the reasons behind why immigrants like myself feel pressured to assimilate. This is not only a letter of apology but also an attempt to move forward in my personal journey towards reclamation. One day, I want to look back on this narrative and see how far I have come.
“Finally, I’d love to highlight the title of this piece. My name means ‘gem’ in Vietnamese, but when substituted behind Nia, it becomes hidden. Hidden Gem.”