One day, a friend of mine asked us on Facebook about how to best address American professors in emails. He said he always starts an email to his professor by using the phrase “Dear Professor.” But, he feels his use is not of American style because his classmates always use such phrases as “Hi Peter, Hello Mary…”
I believe that my friend is not the only Vietnamese student who chooses to talk, write to professors in general and American professors in particular by using the respectfully familiar words: “Professor,” or “Dear Professor.” I also have done the same way (and ended my emails to my professors by the phrase “Yours respectfully”) since I was at Emerson College last fall.
I know well that it is very acceptably normal in the United States for a student to call his/her instructors only by their first names. I have seen my classmates, who are both American and Asian, talk to our professors like that.
They do it very naturally and respectfully. I have never tried to do the same because I cannot get rid of the feeling of disrespect for my professors if I just use their first name. Whenever I talk to them, I always use the word “professor” or “teacher.”
I learned that no one here will ever mind if I call a person who is older than me using only his/her name. Honestly, the first time I called my good-hearted host, who is 14 years older than me, only by her name – Janice, I felt very uneasy with the feeling that I hadn’t enough respect for her.
I also had the same bad feeling on calling my American friends’ grandparents, mother, father, aunt and uncle only by their names when I visited their homes.
My American friends, who used to work in Vietnam for one or two years as English teachers, prefer to call me “chị” (older sister) when they speak Vietnamese to me. At the times, I felt so moved not only because they used our language but because they mastered Vietnamese culture.
Unlike American people, the Vietnamese people are expected to call a biologically unrelated person who is their parent’s age “cô, dì” (aunt) for a female or “chú, bác” (uncle) for a male. A person of one’s grandparent’s age is called “ông” (grandfather) for a male or “bà” (grandmother) for a female. If a person is a few years older, she or he is expected to be called “chị” (older sister) or “anh” (older brother) respectively.
In the family, we call our older brothers and sisters in rank of birth or by their names preceded by the word “anh” (older brother) or “chị” (older sister). For example, I am the eldest daughter in my family; my younger brother (who is four years younger than me) must call me “chị Châu” or “chị Hai.”
In Vietnam, the eldest sister is called “chị Hai” (sister Second) while the eldest brother is called “anh Hai” (brother Second). About three decades ago, “anh Cả” (brother First) and “chị Cả” (sister First) were used instead. Meanwhile, “anh Hai” and “chị Hai” were used for the brother and sister who were born in the second rank. Similarly, “anh Ba”/“chị Ba”; “anh Tư”/”chị Tư”… are used for the brother/sister who was born in the third, fourth rank respectively.
Only do we use the first name if the person is our age or younger than us.
After nearly eight months living in the United States, I have learned a lot from American culture. However, there are some aspects I find impossible to mingle with because they are quite distinct from our culture. What I just said is one example.
Before concluding, I want to share one experience on my trip back to Vietnam in the winter break. Can you guess my reaction when my only (younger) brother called me only by my name Chau? I felt quite irritated. I knew it was not his intention but I found it so unacceptable. He said I must accept his just-for-one-time change because I returned from a country where calling someone only by his/her first name is a very common practice.
“No way, we are Vietnamese, and we are in Vietnam” – I responded quite angrily.
(My 177th day in the United States)