Happy New Year, everyone! Not that it’s Vietnamese New Year yet… we’re still on the lead-up to it, but Vietnam uses the Western calendar like most countries (actually it uses the Western and the Chinese calendars, for different purposes, but that’s a topic for another post), and so even while Tết is the most significant holiday in Vietnam, the Western one, as the end of the calendar year, still has some significance, and the downtown streets do get quite clogged before the countdown to midnight.
We celebrated by staying away from the downtown area (and the fireworks) by having a dinner at our apartment, and then heading with my wife and her brothers and sisters to a rather quiet open-air restaurant bar nearby. A slightly different new year.
Both are fairly significant things in Vietnam, often tied together in many ways, and I was originally going to start this blog series with one about Vietnamese drinking etiquette… but I decided to save that one for later. Because while it is indeed a significant part of the culture here (at least among the men), there is nothing in Vietnam more important than family, so it only seems right that I start with something touching on that.
Obviously, there’s a lot to write about family, and future posts will surely get into more depth about that, but I thought it would be nice to start with a post or two about the complex system of terms of address – of which there are many, many terms. It’s one of the first things I learned in terms of language, and says quite a lot about the family structure and how it reflects Vietnamese society and culture. Many (but not all) of these family terms do in fact extend beyond the family and used among non-relatives too.
Spend a little time in Vietnam, and you’ll come across a couple of them very quickly – the first two you’ll learn will most likely be anh, chị, and em. A lot of people fall into the assumption that guys get called anh and younger girls get called em. This is because most of the ems you meet will be younger girls working in restaurants/shops/etc. The actual term, however, more literally means “younger sibling”, and can be used for anyone you are confident is younger than you, male or female. No offence is taken, except by certain foreign males who feel a bit funny about being addressed as em, even when it’s correct. Among Vietnamese people, however, this is not a problem whatsoever – most of the main terms of address of Vietnam are based on age differentials.
So em for anyone the right age to be your younger sibling, basically. Similarly, anh and chị mean “older brother” and “older sister” respectively, and can be used for any male or female of the appropriate age. This generally means not people old enough to be your uncle (for which there is a different term of address, which I’ll discuss later), though I have noticed that some women who should surely be addressed as cô (Aunty), sometimes also get addressed as chị, as a sort of flattery I guess. Similarly, some chịs also like to be called em, and there will be no offence in such a situation. It should be noted that this distinction only applies outside the family – real aunties will always be addressed as such.
(Of course, there was that one conceited woman who was clearly a cô, but insisted upon chị. This was highly unrealistic, and she clearly didn’t deserve it.)
Anh and chị also have another distinction within the family – the number. While any younger siblings just get called by their names or nicknames, older siblings will generally be addressed as anh or chị plus a number depending on their birth order. So if the oldest sibling is a boy, he will be addressed by his younger siblings as anh hai, literally ‘older brother #2.
Wait, #2? Yes, that’s right – for some reason, the numbering system here starts from 2, so there is never a brother or sister #1. This appears to be based on some ancient superstition, though no one in the family seems to really know the reason why this started. I will have to investigate further.
Anyway, the next sibling down the line will be anh ba or chị ba (brother or sister #3 – even if you’re the 1st sister, you’re still #3 if you’re the second sibling)
This also applies to husbands/wives of the family. I myself get addressed by my wife’s youngest brother as anh ba (although her sister calls me Chris – she’s a bit less traditional, I guess, or possibly her better English ability has something to do with it.)
These are the easiest and most familiar ones, and it gets more complicated from here. I’ll save the parents, grandparents, and most intimidatingly, the aunts and uncles, for a later post – they need a post of their own!