“Dear Professor” published
on Emerson Globe
The Emerson Globe, an internal publication for international students at Emerson College, just published my story titled “Dear Professor” on the front page of its Spring issue. I am happy to share my story published on The Emerson Globe.
One day, a friend of mine asked me on Facebook about how to best address American professors in emails. He said he always starts an email to his professor with “Dear Professor.” But he feels this salutation is not a common American greeting, because his classmates always address their professors by their first names.
My friend is not the only Vietnamese student who chooses to talk or write to professors by using the respectful prefix—Professor. I have done the same since coming to Emerson College, last fall. I’m fully aware that it is an acceptable norm in the United States for a student to call his / her instructors by their first name alone. I have seen my classmates, both American and Asian, address our professors this way. They do this very respectfully and easily.
I have never tried to do the same because I cannot get rid of this niggling feeling that I’m being disrespectful to my professors if I use only their first name. Whenever I talk to them, I always use “professor” or “teacher.” While I learned that no one here will ever mind if I call a person who is older by their first name alone, I still can’t shake off my uneasiness. Honestly, the first time I called Janice, my good-hearted host, who is 14 years older than me, by her first name I was very uncomfortable and felt that I was somehow being impolite. This feeling of discomfort pricks me every time I address my friends’ family (be it parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles) by their first names.
In Vietnam, unlike America, people are expected to address their elders, even those who are not family, respectfully as “cô, dì” (aunt) or “chú, bác” (uncle) as the case may be. Grandparents, or people their age are called “ông” (grandfather) or “bà” (grandmother). For people a few years older, she or he is expected to be called “chị” (older sister) or “anh” (older brother) respectively. For example, I am the eldest daughter in my family so my younger brother (who is four years younger than I) must call me “chị Châu” or “chị Hai”. The eldest sister is called “chị Hai” (sister Second) while the eldest brother is called “anh Hai” (brother Second). We only use first names if the person is the same age as us or younger.
After nearly eight months of living in the US, I’ve learned a lot from, and about, American culture. I went back to Vietnam over winter break and imagine my surprise when my younger brother called me Châu! Not “chị Châu” or “chị Hai” but just my name. He said he was only kidding and felt that since I’d spent so much in a country that addresses everyone by their first names that I’d be used to it. But I just couldn’t accept it. Not from him. ‘No way, we are Vietnamese, and we are in Vietnam.”’