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Attitude toward the self

By Huynh Dinh Te

Status of the individual

Despite his concern for a certain amount of individuality, the Vietnamese is not an individualist. In Vietnamese culture the interest and destiny of an individual are rarely conceptualized outside the framework of the immediate and extended families. Anything a Vietnamese does, he does out of consideration for the welfare of the family, rather than for himself alone.

As an individual, the Vietnamese endeavors to live in harmony with himself as well as with the outer world of humanity and nature. Harmony with oneself is achieved by the acceptance of life and the world. To the Vietnamese, life is the most precious property to which no material possession can be compared. As a proverb puts it, "a man alive is worth more than a pile of golf." The preservation of the self is not only a personal responsibility but also the responsibility of an individual toward his family. 'This recognition of the importance of the physical self distinguishes the mentality of the Vietnamese from the Hindu, which is characterized chiefly by the importance given to the world of the spirit, often carried to the extreme of despising and considering as irrelevant any material aspect of life.

Harmony with oneself is achieved by observing moderation and by avoiding extremes. The reason for seeking moderation in food and drink is not only physical safety but also for the moral imperative to keep one's dignity unimpaired. Moderation and caution in speech constitutes a distinctive feature of Vietnamese culture. Since childhood, the Vietnamese is taught to think deeply before opening his mouth, and, in the words of a well-known proverb, "to open his mouth only when asked to and to answer only when beckoned to." This attitude is in part prompted by the belief that wise and talented people are modest in action and speech. Bragging reflects and empty soul. Moderation and caution in speech are also motivated by an awareness of the danger that verbal excess can bring by creating discord and animosity. It is commonly believed that hasty words and slips of tongue are as devastating as hasty actions and bad deeds. Because of this cultural predisposition, the Vietnamese often appear to be reserved, non-responsive, or non-assertive by American standards.

This is particularly true of the behavior of Vietnamese children in school, where they rarely volunteer an answer for fear of making mistake and losing face, or of appearing to behave in boastful way. They would rather wait until called upon by the teacher to give an answer, for since early childhood, they have been taught to talk only when talked to and to answer only when asked to.

Certain virtues seem to have a greater appeal to the Vietnamese than the others. Most conspicuous are moderation, modesty, moral probity and self-control, qualities which make him a refined, well-mannered person. The term of criticism that the Vietnamese fears most is ill-bred (ÇÒ mÃt dåy), which deals a serious blow not only to the ego but also to the honor of his family, and by extension, to filial piety.

Naming system

Other than the physical self, perhaps the thing that most confers identity to a person is his/her name. (In his own country, the Vietnamese does not have a social security number.) The naming system of the Vietnamese is different from that of Americans and most other Asian peoples.

What's your Name? A Study in Cultural Differences

What's your last name? This simple question, so easy for most foreigners who speak some English, is for the Vietnamese, even those who speak English fluently, a question to which a right answer is difficult to give. The difficulty does not lie in the meaning of the term name but in the use of name that is different in American and Vietnamese societies. American people who are familiar with Vietnamese habits and customs epitomize the difference in the following statement: "They put the names in the wrong order, the last name written first and the first name last." This, however, is not the whole story. The best way to bring out the difference is, perhaps, to describe how names are used in Vietnamese society.

A Vietnamese name for example NguyÍn Væn Hai, usually consists of three parts occurring in the following order: family name (NguyÍn), middle name (Væn), and given name (Hai). Some people do not have, or omit, middle names. Others have two-part given names, written as two words, that results in the appearance of four component parts.

Generally speaking, a Vietnamese family name does not have any meaning, at least its meaning is no longer apparent to the common people. Unlike Americans, Vietnamese are never known by their family names alone. A Vietnamese is always called by his/her given name. His/her family name appears only in full name, but never in isolation. There are a few exceptions to this general practice, however, and these are motivated by political reasons. Ho Chi Minh was known as President Ho (or Uncle Ho) and Ngo Dinh Diem was called President Ngo because their followers wanted to sort them out from the rest of the nation and elevate them to the status of divine ruler. Calling them by given names would be a mark of irreverence amounting to sacrilege. (In the old days, only the King was referred to by his dynasty name. Referring to a King by his given name was punishable by imprisonment or even death.)

There are about one hundred family names for the whole population estimated at about 69 million, but only a core of these names are of frequent occurrence: Nguyen, Le, Tran, Pham, Phan, Truong and so on. This may in part explain why Vietnamese are not called by their family names; there are too many with the same name. Some family names are indicative of the ethnicity of the bearers (Chinese, Cham, Cambodian, Hmong); others may have different spellings and pronunciation as Vo vs. Vu, and Hoang vs. Hùynh, the result of the practice of euphemism.

Given names usually have a meaning and parents often choose for their children names that reflect their aspirations and ideals. There can be as many given names as there are words in Vietnamese language. Some of the common names are words denoting qualities and virtues (Trung-fidelity, Hung-courage, Liem-integrity); the seasons (Xuan-spring, Thu-autumn); flowers (Hong-rose, Lan-orchid); fruits (Nho-grape, Le-pear), or natural phenomena and celestial bodies (Tuyet-snow, Van-cloud, Nguyet-moon). Girl's names are frequently chosen from words denoting virtues, things that are beautiful, sweet, fragrant, or melodious. Any name can be used for boys or girls, although some names are more typical of one than the other. In general, a given name consists Of one word, but it is becoming more common to give girls a two-word name (or compound name) like Thu-Hong, Bich-Hong, Cam-Hong, Thuy-Hong instead of the single word Hong. Boy may sometimes take a two-word name but this tends to be less common.

After marriage a Vietnamese woman still keeps her own name and never combines her name with that of her husband. Thus a woman whose name is Nguyen Thi Thu Hong married to a man whose name is Tran Van Tam will be called Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thu Hong and not Tran Thi Thu Hong or Tam Thi Thu Hong. She may be called Mrs. Tran Van Tam, but most often her papers bear the name Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thu Hong.

The Vietnamese given name, when preceded by a term of address like Mr., Mrs., Dr., or Rev., is practically an equivalent to the American last name. The given name used by itself is somewhat similar to the American first name. However, in Vietnamese society, given names, especially names of those higher in social status, age or rank in the extended family, have a certain "taboo" quality. When talking to a person who is not a close friend, Vietnamese people tend to avoid mentioning his name. This practice is also transferred to their interactions with American people. Even when they speak English, they tend to avoid mentioning the name of the interlocutor, especially if that person is their teacher or boss. In Vietnamese society, it is a great insult to mention a person's mother's or father's given name. Because of this "taboo" quality, names are carefully chosen for newborns to avoid the names of one's parents ancestors, relatives. and close friends.

Vietnamese middle names are used for various purposes. They are used to differentiate a man's name from a women's name since there are practically no names that are exclusively masculine or feminine. The common middle name for women is Thi, or less commonly, Nu. So, Nguyen Van Hai is a man and NguyÍn Thi Hai is a woman. There is, however, a tendency among the younger generation to drop the ThÎ from their names, thus eliminating the indicator of gender. Middle names for men are more varied. Some of the most common are Van, Dình, Huu, Duc, and Trong. Middle names can also serve to differentiate one branch of a family from another. In this case, the same middle name is shared by all those members who share a common ancestor. In other cases, the middle name indicates the generation level; all those who share the same generation have the same middle name. In yet other cases, the middle name serves to reinforce, qualify, or make the given name more meaningful; for example, NguyÍn Danh, whose given name means "good reputation," might have the middle name Luu, making the name mean "leaving a good reputation." A recent trend, no doubt influenced by foreign practices is to use the mother's family name as a middle name, but this is not very common.

Because names are used differently in American and Vietnamese societies, the Vietnamese will face a dilemma in answering the simple question, "What is your last name?" Should a Vietnamese whose name is Nguyen Van Hai tell his American friends that his last name is Hai or Nguyen? If he says that his last (by inference, his family name) is Hai, he is not telling the truth because Hai is his given name. He is right, however, in the sense that people will call him Mr. Hai as he has always been called by his fellow countrymen. But how can he explain that his father's last name is not Hai and his children's last name are not Hai, either? If he says his last name is Nguyen, he is telling the truth, in that it is his family name, but he is not right, in that people will call him Mr. Nguyen and not Mr. Hai. Moreover, his name will be rewritten as Hai Van Nguyen, which is as strange to him as the name of somebody unknown him. The advantage in this case is that he will have the same name as his father and his children. With American names, it is usually easy to distinguish the first from the last name. John Smith and Smith John can only be one and the same person. This is not the case with Vietnamese names. Ha Van Mai and Mai Van Ha are two different persons. By reversing the order of the different parts of a Vietnamese name, we may change a person's name into that of another completely unknown to him.

Vietnamese is tone language and the tones are represented in writing by various diacritic marks that are not used in English. In written files, different names like Nguye^~n Va(n Tuye^n, Nguye^~n Va(n Tuye^`n, Nguye^~n Va(n Tuye^'n, Nguye^~n Va(n Tuye^?n, and so on, are usually written exactly the same way. Therefore it is not possible to tell who is who, and confusion of identity and embarrassment may arise. Vietnamese are making efforts to learn new things and new ways of behavior in their new country, including the practice of reversing the order of their names, recognizing a name written without any diacritic marks, and adjusting to being addressed by their family names.

A study of Vietnamese names would not be complete if we did not mention the way in which names are given to members of the former royal family. (The last King, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945 at the time of the August Revolution to become citizen Nguyen Vinh Thuy.) The name of the royal family is Nguyen. The founder of the dynasty is NguyÍn Phuc Anh, known as King Gia-Long. His successor, Minh-Mang, devised a way to give names to members of the family to distinguish them from the common people. Those who are not direct descendants of the King will be known as Ton-That (for men) and Ton-Nu (for women). Those who are direct descendants will be given a name taken from a poem written by Minh-Mang himself to reflect the generation to which they belong:


The first word in this poem, which consists of four lines with five words in each, became the middle name of the first generation of Minh-Mang's descendants; the second became the name of the second generation, and so on. Minh-Mang envisioned that the Nguyen family would reign for at least twenty generations. Unfortunately, it lasted for only five generations after Minh-Mang. The name of King Bao Dai is Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy. Vinh is the fifth word in the poem written by Minh-Mang. (Today in Vietnam it is possible to find people bearing the name Vinh as their middle, or generation, name; they represent the eighth generation since Minh-Mang.) The names taken from Minh-Mang's poem are actually middle names but members of the royal family use them as if they were family names. They simply leave off the family name Nguyen. For women, members of each generation also receive a special name to distinguish them from other generations, such as Cong Ton Nu, Cong Huyen Ton Nu, Công Tang Ton Nu, and so on. This practice still goes on even though there is no longer a king Vietnam.

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