Hierarchical and Respects
The Vietnamese family unit is very tight. The oldest son and his wife live with his parents until their parents pass away. The firstborn son inherits the role of patriarch. The family members support one another. Choices and decisions are determined as a unit.
Education and showing respect to the elders is very important in a Vietnamese household. Teachers especially college professors are held in the highest respect. During my grandparents’ golden days, scholars were almost as highly regarded as doctors because the scholar can become a doctor or a high-collar position in society. High standards of knowledge are expected from all students. It becomes very competitive and difficult as a student rises from grammar school into junior, high school, and then college. Fewer students graduate from high school.
Sometimes parents with children living in the country cannot afford to send their children to higher education such as high school and then college. The children often stay home and help their parents make a living. Other times, parents often save money and send their children into the city for higher education. When the child graduates from college, they find a profession and send money home to help their family.
Hierarchy titles in a Vietnamese family play an important role in addressing the elders with respect. There are different titles for grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins who are older or younger than my parents. It does get lengthy but sometimes helpful in differentiating which side of the in-laws the aunts and uncles are.
Not all the titles of grandparents, aunts, and uncles are called exactly the same throughout the Vietnam region. The titles may even vary from village to village. In America, the children called their parents’ parents “grandmother and grandfather.” Of course, there are nicknames such as “Granny”, “Grandpa”, or “Grandma”. In Vietnam, the children called their grandparents a specific title based on the side of the maternal or paternal. For an example, I called my paternal grandparents “Ông Nội” and “Bà Nội”. I called my maternal grandparents “Ông Ngoại” and “Bà Ngoại”.
A similar concept applies to aunts and uncles. In my family, I called my dad’s older sister “Cô” and my dad’s older brother “Bác”. Meanwhile, I called my dad’s younger brother and his wife “Chú” and “Thím”. The titles are slightly different on my mom’s side. I called my mom’s older sister and brother “Bác”. I called my mom’s younger brother and his wife “Cậu” and “Mợ” and my mom’s younger sister and her husband “Dì” and “Chú”.
Once I master the uncle and aunt titles, there are more. There are different titles for cousins with first-generation, second generations, and so on and so forth. It gets challenging in tracing proper titles for different cousins.
The bottom line in the hierarchy title is that always give respect to my elders. The proper way to give an adult my respect is to greet them properly according to their title. If I am not sure about an adult title, it is usually safe for me to call them “Bác”, “Chú” or “Cô”. Bác is usually someone who would look older than my parents. This title can apply to a woman or a man. Chú is someone who appears younger than my parents and older than me. This title applies to only a man. Cô is the same as Chú. However, this title applies to only a woman.
Getting lost in hierarchy yet? Maybe we should have a quiz at the end to see how much you paid attention to this article. =)