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, for the Vietnamese, even those who speak English fluently, is 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...
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