Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A poorly researched analysis of Vietnamese pronouns

I overheard one foreign fellow in a café speaking of how he had become a chu (uncle) in recent times. Of course anyone can be a chu. All you need is a chau (niece/ nephew/ whippersnapper) to call you one.

He was referring of course to the more depressing fact that now he is in his late thirties all the young, nubile ladies around town, serving him his coffee, or beer, (as if collectively) had elevated him, or relegated, or shall we say banished him, to the status of being an older man. To them he was no longer an anh (older brother/ male friend). He was an uncle.

“Hat’s off to the Vietnamese,” he said taking it on the chin, “They know how to make those old rascals with idle hands behave themselves.”

Every man must face the day, some sooner than others, when the grey flecks appear, the crow’s feet deepen, the belly goes and you start buying string vests. Then the young ladies will miss your glances, thank heavens for them, and you must resign yourself to games of Chinese checkers in Lenin Park, shuffle off to the bia hoi or, for the more athletic specimen, whack a shuttlecock in the close proximity of traffic.

The words, or phrasing is somewhat weakened in translation, but allow me to demonstrate the potential power the words Chao Anh (eg: Hello young buck) can have, and by comparison Chao Chu (eg: Hello old fart).

If I am within the age of a woman and keen for a bit of harmless flirtation the greeting ‘Chao Anh’ can mean, in my mind, anything from – ‘Hello tiger’, ‘Hey there good looking’, ‘Let’s get it on’. (I admit to taking certain liberties but if I don’t, who will?)

If, on the other hand, they say ‘Chao Chu’, well, I would understand it as - ‘Good day to you venerable uncle’, ‘Hello middle-aged man’, ‘Are you looking for my father/ mother?’ or, perhaps, just - ‘don’t even think about it’

Hat’s off indeed. Everyone is put in their place. And that’s grand. But can it all be so categorically satisfying? Surely in this mixed up-muddled up world things can’t be so pleasantly simple.

Of course not. Now usually young loving couples in these parts comprise of an anh, who is older, and an em, who is younger. But what if, as in the film Vertical ray of the sun, the boy and girl are born on the same day? Could she be in fact the chi, and he the em? And if she was, and they fell in love would he keep calling her chi?

Traditionalists, oh ye pernickety old souls, would perish the thought. The man, they say, must remain an anh, otherwise they won’t have any relevant songs to sing in karoke, apt love poetry to recite or be able to whisper sweet nothings without slightly shuddering and thinking of their siblings.

I, myself, am partnered by a woman one year my senior (she never lets me forget) but these prickly pronouns prevent us from communicating in Vietnamese, her native tongue, as she refuses to be called either an em, because I’m younger, or chi, because she sounds old. If I dare to be as cheeky to say ‘em yeu chi’ (I love you older woman) she winces as goose pimples break out all over her skin, and says - “Don’t be weird.”

In fact, several older couples have taken me aside and told me to get a nice young pretty wife only for me to discover later the woman in their relationship was older than the man, but it was a fact that was never uttered aloud. Were they trying to keep things simple for me?

Perhaps we’re not so different in my part of the world. My grandfather whose last tuppence worth to my brother was to grab him by the lapels and tell him to make sure he got a nice, young, country woman: fine child rearing hips and they produce nothing but boys, he told him squarely. It was only posthumously did the shocking truth emerge, he was a year younger than my grandmother. (Who also for the record was a city girl and whacked out five boys in a row without batting an eyelid. There goes the theory.)

When speaking Vietnamese we must select a pronoun, especially important when forging a relationship, so I’m told. We are told to pick a title based on our relationship, gender and status. For mother we have a choice of me/ ma/ de/ u and father a platter of bo/ ba/ cha/ tia. For an uncle younger than a mother, we say cau, not chu, and his wife is a mo not a co. And there’s a lot more where they came from.

Confused? Well spare a thought for those children born before their supposed uncles or aunts. (A cousin once removed in our old humdrum language). Imagine the torture of having to visit some relatives, and coming face to face with a child - snot dribbling down his sleeves, chocolate on his cheeks and an evil grin of pleasure as you arrive humbled before your mouth opens. And everyone stands around smiling, prompting you to do your duty, and mumble to the brat - “Hello uncle”

It would be enough to make you stick your head in the sand, I’d say, or at least hit the booze. (I suppose you could take solace in the fact you can drink your uncle under the coffee table) For more desperate measures- get thee to a monastery, as being a monk simplifies things greatly as everyone will refer to you as Thay (master/ teacher/ monk man), and you will call all and sundry - Thi Chu (generous master/ chap/ chapette)

Of course things get complicated when people start messing around with marriage – like when an estranged husband’s younger brother married the estranged wife. Previously the brother called her chi (older sister) as she was the spouse of his older brother - after they wed did he change? And if so, at what point exactly did he change? And what if the husband then married his brother’s ex-wife? And if they all had children? Does anyone know the answer to these questions? Is there a university department calculating the permutations of these eventualities? Is there a hotline for unexpectedly large family gatherings to establish who’s dishing out the rice, and more importantly who’s pouring the wine?

Now, I know this example is a touch extreme but what if Bill Wyman (ex-rolling stone bassist) was Vietnamese?

Bill, 50 million years old, married Mandy Smith, 19 back in 1989. All very well for them, but then his son Stephen, thirty-something, started dating Mandy’s mum, forty-something and things started getting a wee bit creepy.

Of course Bill’s marriage went belly-up before the interior decorator saw their living room, and just in the nick of time, it seems, as his dear son went on to marry Bill’s mother in-law (i.e. his own (ex) granny-in-law). If Bill hadn’t bailed Stephen Wyman would have become his father’s father-in-law and if he’d had a kid he would have been his own grandfather and you’d tear your hair out just thinking about it.

Admittedly that’s a mess in what ever universe you live in but they should be grateful when Christmas cracker time rolls around that they could look each other in the eye, clink their glasses of eggnog and say nice and simply – ‘here’s to you and me’

To avoid further confusion steer clear of graphs:
Figure 1: Verbal Interaction Process

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