Lina and Bao

            Last night Lina and I met members of Bao’s extended family who are visiting Vietnam for the first time in 23 years. They have come to celebrate the New Year or Têt. They have lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan since arriving as refugees in the early 1990s.   Though friends and family have doubtless told them of the remarkable changes that have taken place here since their departure, it must be amazing for them to see and feel these changes themselves.

One aspect of the old life that has not disappeared is the complicated system of address: the multiple ways of saying “I” and “you” that vary according to one’s relationship with the person spoken to.

Bao’s mother is the older sister, or “chi” (older sister), of Hung, whom she would address as “em” (younger brother or sister). Husband and wife also address each other as younger/older brother or sister.

When Bao talks to his uncle Hung, he calls him “câu” . Diep is “mở” to him. These are the words for uncle and aunt when your parent is older than the sibling who is your uncle or aunt. However, if Hung were older than Bao’s mother, Bao would call both Hung and Diep “bác”.   And in either case, they address him as “cháu”. That is also the word I use to refer to my grandchildren.

Hung and Diep have two sons, Nhât and Kevin. They address Bao, their first cousin, as “anh” (older brother) and would call him this even if they were older than he – because his mother is older than their father. He calls them “em” (younger brother). If the ages of their parents were reversed, they would reverse the form of address for each other.

To Bao's left, his two "em" and his "câu"; next to Lina, Bao's "mở"

To Bao’s left, his two “em” and his “câu”; next to Lina, Bao’s “mở”

Does this confuse you? It does me, 25 years after I first began to learn Vietnamese.   But my purpose is not to confuse, but rather to suggest that in Vietnam, the complex web of relationship is embedded in the language. In order to address someone properly, we need to remember our relative age, family relationship, and status.   European languages give some hint of this – for instance, “vous” and “tu” in French – but do not begin to approach the level of subtlety found here, also in Chinese and other Asian languages.

I understand that during the heyday of Communist discipline, many of these distinctions were submerged under more generic words such as “comrade”, but the older ways have reasserted themselves.

If languages interest you, you may enjoy this post from two years ago: