The Whole Anh Em Thing


Titles, titles, titles….everyone in Vietnam has one.  Adults, kids, teenagers and even babies have them….there are so many that it’s sometimes even confusing to the locals.  For instance, you generally use the terms “Anh”, “Chi”, and “Em” within your immediate family.  “Anh” is an elder brother, “Chi” is an elder sister and “Em” can refer to either a younger brother or sister.  Now if only ended there it would be so simple…but most people use the same terms when they address friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives and even strangers.

When you use titles like “Anh” “Chi” or “Em” with people that are not blood related, it is an issue of respect.  I think it’s kinda nice that people address relative strangers in such a manner.  When you use the same title with people outside the family as you do with your own blood…you are probably more inclined to be polite and kind to the person you’re speaking to.  I know that I would think twice before I raised my voice at someone I called referred to as “Anh” or “Chi”.

Drinking Buddies can call each other "Anh" and "Em" too
Drinking Buddies can call each other “Anh” and “Em” too

One of the most confusing aspects of these titles is that you can be a lot older than someone and still have to address them as “Anh” or “Chi”.  One of my cousins on my father’s side is much older than myself or my siblings….but he had to call us all “Anh” and “Chi” because his mother is my father’s little sister.  Another cousin in Vietnam is 4-5 years older than me….and a doctor…but he has to defer to me and call me by “Anh”.  It’s so weird.  It’s all about hierarchy.  Parents are at the top of the hierarchy, then it goes from the oldest siblings to the youngest.  The children of the older siblings are given a higher value than the children of the younger family members.

Your parent’s friends…or adults that are a generation or older than you are generally referred to as “Bac”….however if they are very close to your parents you might call the (“Chu and Co” OR “Cau and Mo”).  If your parents call someone “Anh” or “Chi”…then you automatically have to call them one of previous terms…doesn’t matter if they aren’t much older than you are.  My parents have friends that are a lot older than they are….and their friends’ children have to address my parents as “Bac”…even though they aren’t much older than the children.  I get to call the children….”Anh” and “Chi”…even though they are a probably old enough to be my parents.

In a more formal setting, IE. business meetings, weddings, etc. you should refer to adults as “Ong” or “Ba”….however it all depends on how people address themselves.  If someone addresses himself/herself as “Bac”or “Anh/Chi”…then it’s probably fine to use those titles with them in return.  But if you are not sure…it’s best to be on the safe side and call them “Ong” or “Ba”.  Some people get really offended when you address them by a more informal title such as “Chu” or “Co”.

When my father was younger…he used to really get pissed off when people called him anything other than “Bac Si” (doctor) or “Ong”.  There were countless times he kinda went off on a waiter or waitress at a Vietnamese restaurant when they addressed him “incorrectly”.  I don’t even want to imagine the stuff we must have had to ingest because he couldn’t let it slide.  It was very embarrassing and everyone else in my family always felt really bad for the people on the other end of my father’s verbal abuse.  I’m happy to say that these episodes are a thing of the past.  My father is now a Buddhist Monk and his temper is not so hot anymore.

I’ll admit that even though I’ve been in Vietnam for over 4 months now…I still slip up constantly and address people inappropriately.  Not on purpose of course!!  Living in the U.S., I only had to know one title really….”Bac”…..because the only people I ever had to address in Vietnamese were my parent’s friends.  Almost all their friends were “Bac” to me…with the occasional “Co” or “Chu” thrown in.

My brothers and sisters spoke to each other completely in English…so titles were never an issue.  We only called each other “Anh” or “Em” when referring to each other with my parents.  Even so…we screwed that up royally!!  For whatever reason, only my older brother Khanh was addressed as “Anh”….maybe because “Anh Khanh” kinda rhymed.  Every other sibling was “Em”.  I called my 2 older sisters “Em” and likewise my 2 younger brothers called me and my sisters “Em”.  My parents never corrected us and it became a habit.  Because I grew up pretty much only using “Bac” and “Em”….I am only comfortable when addressing Vietnamese people that way.  I remember when I came back to Vietnam in 2002….I slipped and called my cousin “Bac” even though she was only 19 and I was 30.

My mom has been yelling at me everytime I tell her I call some person I just met “Em”.  I can’t help it…’s a reflex.  When someone calls me “Anh”….my first reaction is to address them in return as “Em”.  If you don’t want me to call you “Em”….DON’T call me “Anh”!!  My mom says it’s politically correct to call most young men “Anh” or “Chu” and young women “Co” or “Chi”….even if you know you are older than them.  And you should definitely NOT call your friends’ girlfriends or wives “Em”.  Oops.    My mom says she’s surprised I haven’t been punched in the face yet.  🙂  People in relationships also call each other “Anh” or “Em”….but I think in this context it is similar to Americans that call each other “Honey” or “Baby”.

One thing I don’t like about the whole hierarchy thing (which exists in pretty much all Asian societies) is that it teaches you to  defer to the person higher up on the totem pole.  The person at the bottom is often too afraid to question the authority of the person higher up….so mistakes are made that could be corrected….but are often not, and in a way I think it also helps reinforce the elements of corruption within society.  The older and more powerful feel that they can take advantage of those beneath them because of their elevated position….and the lower classes are too afraid to speak out.

There have been a few times I’ve seen a teacher in Vietnam make mistakes that some students or other teachers will catch….yet no one dares mention the error to the offending teacher.  People that are younger or lower in the hierarchy will rarely ever question their seniors.  My parents taught us that we have to obey whatever they say…no questions asked, and that the older sibling has the right and duty to “teach” the younger siblings.  Anh Khanh used to beat up on me and my other siblings when growing up….and would lie and say that we did something we did not do to justify his actions.  My parents always took his side because he was older than us.  I thought that was a pretty shitty deal.  It’s great to teach kids to have respect for their elders….god knows that kids nowadays are lacking much of that…but teaching respect should never come at the expense of common sense….and allowing anyone regardless of  their age the ability to voice their thoughts and opinions.

I could go on and on about this stuff, but for now I will just list the most commonly used titles (pronouns) in Vietnam….

Em – generally used to refer to someone younger than you…although sometimes you might call an older person “Em” because they are “lower” than you.  Men also usually address their girlfriends/wives as “Em”

Em Bé – general term for baby, also used as a term of affection for the youngest child in a family

Em Trai – little brother

Em Gái – little sister

Anh – generally used to refer to a male that is older than you…but as with “Em” you might have to call someone “Anh” because you are “lower” in the hierarchy than they are.  Women also call their boyfriends/husbands by this term.

Chị – generally used to refer to a female that is older than you.  Similar scenario as above.

Ông – a more formal way of addressing an adult male.  Equivalent to “Mr.”

Ông Nội – Grandfather on your father’s side of the family.

Ông Ngoại – Grandfather on your mother’s side of the family.

 – a more formal way of addressing an adult female.  Equivalent to “Ms”

Bà Nội – Grandmother on your father’s side

Bà Ngoại – Grandmother on your mother’s side

Cô – in a family setting it is your Aunt on your father’s side, but it can also be used as a respectful way to address an adult female without being too formal.  When used with a young unmarried woman….it is equivalent to calling someone “Miss”.

Cô giáo – a female teacher, but she is often just called “Cô”

Thầy giáo – a male teacher, but he is often just called “Th?y”

Chú – in a family setting it is your Uncle on your father’s side, but it can also be used as a respectful way to address an adult male without being too formal.

Cậu – in a family setting it is your Uncle on your mother’s side.  It can also be used in a similar way to “Chú” however according to my mom C?u is used more often if the person is an especially close family friend.

Dì – in a family setting it is your Aunt on your mother’s side.  It can also be used in a similar way to “Cô” however like “C?u”  it probably is used when the person is an especially close family friend.

Dượng – is your Dì’s husband.  He is your uncle but not blood related.

Mợ – is your C?u’s wife.  She is your Aunt but not blood related.

Thím – is your Chú’s wife.  She is your Aunt but not blood related.

Bác – generally used as a formal way of addressing an adult male or female that is a generation or older than you are.  Your father’s older brother is also called “Bác” instead of “Chú”.

Bác Sĩ – Doctor

Bạn – literally translates into “friend”.  I believe it is used mostly to address people that are your peers…in school or work…but not someone that you are especially close to.

Con/Cháu – “con” literally translates into “child”.  If you speak to someone that is old enough to be your parents…you probably would refer to yourself as either “con” or “chau”.  I often interchange the two terms and I’ve never been corrected.  My mom says that if I were to use the terms correctly…”con” would probably only be used when addressing your parents, but I’ve heard it used with non-relatives also.

That’s pretty much all I can come up with right now…any other additions or corrections welcome.

One last funny story before I call it a night.  Awhile back when I was just engaged to my now ex-wife….she took me to meet her father’s younger brother…who she addresses as “Chú”.  Back then I had never heard of the term “Thím” which is what Chú’s wife is called.  Anyways, one day my ex tells me “we’re going to go visit Chú, Thím today”.  I stupidly thought that “Thím” was his name.  So as we are leaving, I turned to politely say goodbye to him and said “Chào Chú Thím”….even though his wife wasn’t present!!  My ex-wife and her family got a big kick out of that.

(Via sangoninacup)