Once, while volunteering at the Science Centre in Singapore, I met some Vietnamese students roughly around my age. I tried to introduce myself in Vietnamese but my voice caught in my throat and I wasn’t able to say anything.

The memory has remained vivid, another bitter loss in my long-standing war to be fluent in my mother tongue. Until last year, I had never figured out why I had clammed up. I spoke Vietnamese well enough with my parents and relatives and the shopkeepers in Hanoi.

During conversations with Vietnamese friends I met in college, I faced the same situation. I always seemed to trip up on the first word, unsure of what pronoun to use. That was the problem — I didn’t know the appropriate word for “I.”

Vietnamese is so intensely relational that there is rarely a neutral “I,” an isolated “I,” an “I” that remains the same no matter who “I” talk to. Instead, “I” am con (child) when I speak to my parents, em (younger sibling) when I speak to my elder sister and chấu (grandchild) when I speak to my grandparents, and according to convention, em to a hypothetical boyfriend anh, which means older brother, regardless of whether he is actually older or not. In Vietnamese, people use kinship terms rather than pronouns to refer to themselves and address other people, even those not related to them.

Thus, figuring out how to address someone you just met can be a tricky business. It is easy when the person you’re meeting is distinctly older than you. You refer to yourself as chấu and the other person as cô or chú, which mean aunt and uncle, respectively, but can also be a polite way to refer to a woman or man. Occasionally, if the new acquaintance wants to feel young, he or she will insist you call them anh or chị.

What happens when you meet someone around your age?

I have just recently learned that mình (self) and bạn (friend) are possible options and are relatively egalitarian. Other than that, it is common for new acquaintances to ask for each other’s age to determine how to address each other. Even if you are a year younger, you would need to call an acquaintance anh or chị, and refer to yourself as em. Chị and em may be on good terms but em has to be more polite.

This deference to age is not unique to Vietnam. In Korea and Japan, it is common to address people older than you in school as senior — sunbae in Korean or senpai in Japanese — and use the polite form of speaking with them instead of the casual form used with friends and family. It doesn’t matter if the difference is merely a year; the message is clear, you are no longer equals.

There are exceptions to this rule. Both parties may refer to themselves as em and the other as chị to be polite while avoiding a hierarchical relationship. In Vietnamese, to show respect, one raises the position of the other and lowers their own position. It is possible to negotiate, but only if the older person in the relationship agrees, since age gives one authority in Vietnamese society.

This inherent hierarchy embedded in the Vietnamese language has always irked me. There seems no way out, no way to demand to be equal. The closest thing to a neutral “I” in Vietnamese is tôi, but it is only used in essays or, as a friend put it, when you’re addressing a nation.

Even its usage is a new experiment. Up to the late 19th century, tôi was used when speaking to persons of higher status without asserting a quasi-familial relationship. But in the beginning of the 20th century, David Marr, a historian of Vietnam, writes, “tôi was promoted to the equivalent of moi or je in French, designed to give identity to the self without reference to ‘the other’, whether high or low, kin or non-kin, male or female.”

Two brothers, Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân, both writers in the early 20th century, commented: “The first day — who knows when — that the word ‘I’ [tôi] appeared in Vietnamese poetry, it was truly surprising. It was as if ‘I’ were lost in a strange land. This is because it brought with it a perspective not yet seen in this country: the individual perspective.”

Vietnamese society had no individual, only the larger collective of the nation and the smaller one of the family in which the individual and her unique identity were submerged, as the Hoài brothers describe, “like a drop of water in the sea.”

Nearly a century later, this still rings true. Every “I” pronoun is enmeshed in a social relationship. Even tôi is not fully neutral. In daily conversation, when used with different “you” pronouns, tôi can range from polite to causal to downright rude. Southern Vietnamese use tôi and ông/bà (grandfather/grandmother) when talking to very close friends. A man can use tôi to refer to himself and em to his lover; but tôi and anh are reserved for serious marital disputes. Categorizing others is more primordial than consciousness, de Beauvoir writes, and I am inclined to agree. When one group sets itself as the One, it also sets up another group as the Other against itself. In Vietnamese, “I” and “you” are not isolated categories but always defined in relation to each other. I am not only defined by the pronoun I use but also the pronoun I choose for you.

This is especially frustrating for me because I am so used to English with its personal pronouns that clearly designate the individuality of the subject. But lest we reduce this to an East vs. West thing, Chinese has clear-cut personal pronouns as well. So does Japanese, although men and women may use different personal pronouns.

Perhaps it’s a childish sense of unfairness, but I see no need to call myself em when I talk to someone only a few years older. I can imagine myself shrinking, my voice softening, my temperament turning more docile when I fit myself into that pronoun. I have little patience for hierarchy, especially one based on something as trivial as age, but in Vietnamese, somehow it just feels unbearably wrong not to follow the unspoken rules. Still, I feel a stubborn insistence to be myself as I am, an equal and not someone else’s little sister.

So I turn to English, neatly sidestepping the entire issue. But this is not a solution and is hardly conducive to my attempts to practice Vietnamese. They say you are different people in different languages. I don’t like the person I am when speaking Vietnamese. She feels so adrift, unsure and tiny.

Navigating egalitarian notions in romantic relationships is even trickier. The conventional way for a heterosexual couple to address each other is anh (for the male) and em (for the female), even if the boyfriend is the same age or younger. In fact, the shift to anh and em is an important marker of a romantic relationship, a ritual in dating. Anh and em always have the whiff of romantic tension; chi and em feel distinctly sexless and platonic. One can argue that anh and em are simply a convention, but the truth is that the words encode certain expectations for the relationship and its roles. Anh and em conjure up the image of the protective boyfriend sheltering his lover.

Female friends have complained about this to me before. A friend who is dating someone younger than her has resisted using anh and em because she fears it could change the dynamic of their relationship. She struggled with saying it even when they were saying goodbye for a semester.

Sometimes, I fear that by using Vietnamese and playing by these rules, I continue to support a system I do not believe in, perpetuating unconsciously a sexism that still has a strong hold in Vietnamese society. One might argue that this is a tiny issue in the scheme of larger things, but it is such a common experience for many women. Another friend said how glad she was that she never had to say the word anh again after she started dating someone who wasn’t Vietnamese.

What is to be done then? We often think of language as static, grammar and syntax as untouchable laws, even more resistant to change than culture. But if we look carefully, it has changed with us. If tôi is an invention, barely a hundred-years-old, then why are new inventions not possible? Perhaps, chị and em or tớ and cậu — used by northerners when talking to close friends — could be romantic too, not just anh and em. Perhaps, one day, somehow, we could find a way to say “I.”

Le Vi Pham levi.pham@yale.edu