Skip to content

Day 73 – Ahn Khoe (Talk to Me Nice in Vietnamese)

May 15, 2010

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Saturday, May 15, 2010

Vietnam is a confusing country. Actually all countries, even my homeland of the United States of America, are confusing. They all run deep with contradictions and have strange cultural norms.

For example, the U.S. is supposed to be a free market economy. We champion capitalism and freedom of trade with other nations. We talk about the market being the most efficient way of selecting winners and losers. We in America let the best and the brightest float to the surface by allowing them the freedom to succeed or fail in the crucible of capitalist competition.

Big talk. When the market decides that big banks suck at their jobs and should go bankrupt, though, we the people give banks/carmakers/insurance companies/over-leveraged-homeowners over a trillion tax dollars–originally made by responsible suckers like you and me—so they can go on living the life to which they’ve grown accustomed when they should have suffered financial deaths. Then we don’t even have the guts to at least make sure we never “have to” give them money again.

So there’s that.

Here in Vietnam, I have less of a grasp on the local language, so I can’t delve too deeply into the big picture cultural contradictions. I’ve got enough things I’m pissed off about back home, so it’s just as well.

There are small cultural differences, though, that I can pick up. Today, let’s look at lingual formalities.

Here in Vietnam, it’s very important to address someone correctly. You can’t just ask them their name and use that. You have to determine where they stand in relation to your station in life.

Every Asian culture has this to some extent. Most of my cousins call me kuya, a Filipino term for “older brother.” Simple. There’s a term for older sister, too. There’s also the word po that’s used for anyone who outranks you or is older. Besides that, I don’t notice very many terms other than those you normally see in English (grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, etc.).

Vietnamese is very different. I can count at least six different terms of address. One for someone as old as your grandparents, another for someone as old as your parents. One for someone that’s a little older than you and one for someone that’s a little younger. One for someone who could be your child or grandchild.

Of course, each of these differs depending on the sex.

Why does this matter? Why does this make Vietnamese hard? Can’t you just refer to people by their names or just say “you”, “he”, or “she”?

Well you can’t. That’s because each of the terms of address is used as “you” or “I”. Let me give you an example. First up, you have to know that em is a sex neutral term of address for someone who’s younger than you. You also must know that ahn is, amongst other things, a term of self-address from a male who’s a little older than you. So here goes.

If I address someone who’s younger than me, I don’t just say, “Thank you,” I have to say “Thank you younger person.” (Cam on em.)

It gets even worse. The terms of address don’t just determine the pronoun that I use on other people, it determines the pronoun that I use on myself.

An example.  If I want to tell someone who is a little younger than me, I can’t just say, “I’m fine,” I have to say, “I, you’re older brother, am fine,” (Ahn khoe. Literally: I’m fine.)

Sweet lord. Really.

The effect of this is that Vietnamese people will unabashedly ask you how old you are if they can’t determine your age. It’s a standard question a Vietnamese will ask a foreigner along with “Where were you born?” and “You need motorbike?”

So, Vietnamese is easier and it’s harder. Isn’t that the way it always is?

GALLERY: No pictures today. You’ll have to sustain yourself with the previous 700 words or so (i.e. 7/10ths of a picture).

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: