Gianna Chalernsouk is my name. It was a name I was given to represent both sides of my family. Gianna to honor my Italian roots and Chalernsouk to honor my Laotian heritage. Most people do not mispronounce my first name, but they sure do mess up my long Asian last name. I would be a millionaire if I got a dollar for everytime someone asked how to pronounce my last name. And a billionaire for how many times I had to repeat myself slowly for someone to understand, “CHA…LERN…SOUK”. Every award I’ve been given from elementary school until now, I would walk on a stage being called something new: “Gianna ChaRlernsouk, Gianna ChalernsOOk, Gianna CHAIlernsouk”. My high school softball sweater says “Charlernsouk” on it. Who is Charlernsouk? It has been sitting in a box on my front porch to be shipped back to the company to fix it, but the company has yet to reach back to me about how to send it back. Sometimes when I am writing my name on a paper for an assignment at school, the letters get smaller and smaller as I realize my name cannot fit on the line. One time I had a teacher spell out my last name as “Cha Lernsouk” thinking it was my first and last name. Little things like this happened to me so frequently I assumed they were typical for everyone. But they are not.
I’ve always liked my unique last name. I grew up knowing there was something different about my name, that it was not my grandfather’s original last name. I thought it was made up, but I didn’t know more. In a sense, my last name made me feel more cultured because I got to honor my grandfather. Growing up I wasn’t taught my native language, Khmu, that my dad’s side of the family all speak. I felt left out when someone would try to talk to me in Khmu. I always hated when my Laotion cousins would make a joke in Khmu, because I couldn’t understand. I’d sit there and fake laugh pretending I knew what the joke was about. This made me feel disconnected from my own ethnicity and at times made me feel like I didn’t deserve my last name. Once a year, I would perform a Laotian dance for Khmu New Year. Being a part of this helped me learn a lot more about my culture, but since I don’t know my native language I still felt disconnected.
One night after a family party, my parents stopped at a Walgreens. A random burst of curiosity struck my 15 year old mind. “What is the real history behind my last name?” I asked them. Right there in the parking lot they told me the story of my last name.
They told me that my grandfather, See Plao, was born in the jungles of Laos in 1956. In 1965, when he was 9 years old, he fled from Laos alone because of the Vietnam War and the connected “secret war” in his country. He went to live in Thailand with his great uncle. This is where his great uncle gave him a new first name and his last own name: Thong Chalernsouk. Thong means gold and Chalernsouk means happiness and prosperity. Ten years later, when he was 19 years, he went to a refugee camp. After six years he was sponsored to go to America. But to go to America, he needed a birth date. My grandfather did not know his exact birth date, all he did know was that he was born in 1956. For the sponsor, International Institute of Boston, he chose his own birthday to be September 13, 1961. Finally, on December 31st, 1981 he traveled alone to Boston, Massachusetts. Here, he met my grandmother and had three boys to whom he passed on his last name Chalernsouk.
Learning this new information made me feel even more unique. I no longer feel embarrassed to have my last name because it is the story of my grandfather's migration and my family’s history. For the rest of the car ride home, I looked out the window and realized that I was connected to my culture this whole time.
© Gianna Chalernsouk. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person’s teacher.