Hey Sister!

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Me and my sisters (Các em)

Geographically it’s not but it’s referred to as ‘The West’ (from where civilisation originated). The country I call home is Australia and the other day I was thinking the other day of how I’d greet an older lady at home or in “The West”. So, not an old lady, but an OLDER lady. I’m alllmost thirty,  so let’s just say I’m thirty for this example and let’s just say she’s forty…..  I don’t think I would treat her any differently to anyone else and probably just go with the standard ‘Hey’ or ‘Morning!’. Perhaps being an Aussie, it might be a good ol’ ‘G’day’. You can’t go wrong with it and your sure to at least get a boring, predictable but respectful reply. (For the record, in practice Vietnamese never say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’ and rarely ‘How are you?’ to a stranger)

I was thinking this because here in Vietnam, it’s a tad different and it’s one of the initial things that captured my heart about the culture here. So, this forty-ish year old lady… I would address her as “chị” (Older Sister). If she was the same age as my Mother or there-abouts, I would address her as “Cô” (Aunt).

Im sure most of you know that Vietnam is in Asia……. and like many other Asian countries they also refer to each other depending on age and relationship to each other. “Kinship terms” shows a respect for each other, be it young or old and perhaps it  even conditions respect into someone.

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A happy, recently maried couple

You should be aware that I’m not Vietnamese. I don’t even look remotely asian unless you squint your eyes so tight that they are completely shut! Then if I stayed absolutely silent…. maybe someone could mistaken me for Vietnamese. I have to admit, being a foreigner in a foreign country can be great, but often in Vietnam, being a ‘nước ngoài’ is also often a bit sad as on the other hand, I feel like a complete outsider to the society here. This ‘title’ system I can well & truly a part of! I’m often addressed as “Chú” (Uncle) by many kids and also referred to as “Con” (a young child) by many older Viets – about the age of my parents. I call them both Con and Chú back respectively. I personally use these terms and many more, to refer to others in my day to day activities and it can get quite confusing when everyone is calling each other their sister, aunt or uncle, when they’re not actually that at all! I admit, I think it’s quite lovely and warming to refer to your colleagues as a brother or a sister and it can actually be quite rude if you don’t use the correct title.

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Could you get used to politely passing by the lady who had just served you lunch and leaving with a swift “Cảm ơn gì” (Thank you Aunt)? Perhaps shes younger woman, a “Cảm ơn chị” (Thanks Sister) or a man the same age ” Anh”.  Sometimes it will be a young adult or teenager serving your coffee who you will casually say as you leave, “Chào em” (Goodbye younger brother/sister).

Often, I find myself  delivering a simple but effective “Chào con” (young child) to the small girl who sometimes can do or say nothing except stare up at me in wonder with what must be the biggest, blackest eyes I have ever seen. Occasionally, like last night, I will get one brave child bow with arms folded and deliver a softly spoken reply of “Chào chú tay” (Hello western uncle) 🙂

On the flip side, a social system where people address each other by age can also cause people, particularly the older generations, to demand respect rather than achieve it. In Southern Vietnam, I would say this is not so common but I have heard some stories from “The North” of aggressive uncles waving a bat when spoken to like they are a “Brother” when they are in fact an “Uncle”. A somewhat rare situation that’s only often demanded BY them now as they were given hell in their youth when it was demanded FROM them.

Buying corn from a street vendor on the Mekong Delta

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Mr Dung and friend enjoying hot pot & beer in Dong Nai province

I often imagine, only I’m in my country at another time and I casually say hello to the waitress as she approaches the table “Hey Auntie” or the greeting the store clerk as he brings a different size with a “thanks brother”. I mean, that last one happens in certain demographics, but it’s not overly polite still. At the end of the day, this would all be quite bad manners and a bit disrespectful, but it is terribly good manners here and rude if you don’t.

Speaking of rude and good manners…  “Em ơi!” “Anh ơi!” “Chị ơi!” – so common… oh so common to be heard called out, no, bellowed out anywhere you may be to get the attention of others, may they be staff, friends, colleagues lovers, enemies… Calling out “Oi!” would be almost as rude as it could be to get someones attention back home so too be honest even after a year, I still find it so, so hard here to call out a big fat “Oi!” or “Em ơi!” across a crowded room to ask for a coffee or to get the bill. Honestly, I don’t feel so comfortable screaming to someone across a crowded room to get their attention no matter what I was trying to say! A bit more pressure is on you here due to the fact that when a foreigner does anything in Vietnam, especially speaking the language, it tends to attract a lot of attention and stares from the others around you.

Phương, a good friend and her grandma and cousins. Bà, Chị, Con, Em.

So as I ponder the day I leave Asia in the future, unsure of when it will be, how will it be greeting strangers again without referring to them as my Aunt or Uncle, Brother or Sister. At home in the west, our physical and emotional boundaries are much more defined and distant when greeting strangers or talking to others…. or is that just me!?

Of course, the system of kinship titles alone has not made Vietnamese society how it is, but surely it helps to maintain a respect for each other and a sense of togetherness. The system, one would assume from Chinese descent, can actually become a complex, confusing system even for Viets. I love it’s power to bring friends, family and strangers closer while also reiterating the bond the Vietnamese people have with each other.

Here is an exert of a table with the basic kinship pronouns set out with a description of use. Please not there are sometimes several possible titles for someone and it’s all depending on where you are living or even where their parents were from/raised (Northern or Southern Vietnam) Thanks Wikipedia! 🙂

Term Reciprocal Literal meaning Non-kinship usage
cha, babố con father a priest
mẹ,  con mother
anh em older brother an older man of the same generation; the man in a romantic relationship; a man
chị em older sister an older woman of the same generation; a woman (formal use)
em anh or chị younger sibling or cousin of the same generation a younger person of the same generation; a child; the woman in a romantic relationship
con cha, mẹ, bà one’s child a young child; a person at least one generation younger
cháu ông, bà, bác, chú grandchild; niece; nephew a young child; a person at least one generation younger
ông cháu or con grandfather a middle-aged man
cháu or con grandmother a middle-aged (married) woman
cháu father’s sister a female teacher, an older woman as old as one’s father, a young (usually unmarried) woman (formal)
chú cháu father’s younger brother an older man as old as one’s father, a slightly younger man (formal)
Sisters!
Sisters!
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