Um & Soy Sauce

Recently, it was my mother’s birthday. But I did not call her, because I forgot. Luckily (for me), my family don’t really celebrate birthdays – at least, not on the actual day. Birthdays occur when they’re celebrated, so when they’re not celebrated, they don’t occur. Make sense? I think so!

I call my mother Um. This is not a common thing to call one’s mother, even if one is Vietnamese. It is more common to use Me or Ma, or even Vu, which really puts your mum in her place because vu means breast.

When I was young, I knew I was different from the Aboriginal, white, Greek, Italian and Lebanese kids at school, but I did not realise that I was different from other Vietnamese kids, until we talked about our mums. Or asked for soy sauce. These were the two greatest differentiating factors between me and other Viet kids. Perhaps there were a few others.

Um is pronounced like Oom. Or like mmm, but you start with your mouth open. It is sometimes used by Chinese/Viet kids as a title for distant older relatives, the same as Bac in more mainstream Viet. It’s a term of distant filial respect. In my father’s family, Um means mother. This is to avoid confusion with my father’s mother, who was the supreme ruler of my father’s (rather extensive) clan. Everyone called my paternal grandmother Ah Ma, and calling anyone else Ma or even Me would have been just too confusing. I guess. Now, my mother is Ma to all her grandkids and Um to all her kids, in-laws included (well, the ones who speak Viet at any rate).

I have a strong recollection of my first “but you’re Viet and you’re different from me!” experience. I would have been about 6 years old. My Um had sent me to the corner shop to buy some soy sauce. I knew the particular bottle like it was a close friend. (It kind of is, actually. Soy sauce, that is. Steamed white rice and soy sauce, now that’s comfort food!) I wandered around and around the narrow aisles, looking for the particular bottle my mother preferred. Eventually, I gave up and went to the counter and asked where they kept yi tam. The woman behind the counter looked at me. There was another woman with a young girl at the counter. The young girl was about my age and she looked over at me like I was some strange specimen, speaking another language.

The woman behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I repeated, yi tam. The other woman said, I think she’s Uncle #5*’s daughter. She’s after si dau. Si dau is the more common term for soy sauce, but I did not know that at the time. I said (because it was true), I don’t know what si dau is. I want yi tam. The other woman’s daughter looked at me aghast. You don’t know what si dau is? I said to her, No. Why should I? The other woman went and got me a bottle of soy sauce – it was just the bottle I was after. The daughter said, That’s si dau. And smartarse me said, No it’s not. It’s yi tam. We both just looked at each. I thought the girl was very stupid. She must have thought the same of me.

(*Uncle #5 (Bac Nam) is what everyone who knew my dad, except people who were actually related to him, called him. Actual relatives called him by whatever the family relationship was. He was not any Viet person in Australia’s fifth uncle, because very few of his extended family emigrated from Viet Nam.)

I took that bottle of yi tam home and showed it to my family and told my story about how strange the people were in the corner store. Um laughed and laughed. So did most of my older siblings. Ba too. Everyone laughed at me, and I honestly had no idea why. I learned, shortly afterwards, a salty lesson in diversity.

Um told me all the different names for yi tam and I was astounded. In the north, they tend to call it nuoc tuong (which is rather confusing because it literally translates as sauce water, or if you’re being pedantic, water sauce). Some call it si ieu and some si dau. Me? It’s yi tam and nothing else (although I will no think you’re stupid if you call it si dau. Swear.)

NT and Wandering Chopsticks both expressed curiousity about why I call my mother Um. I’m no good at being brief in my answers, so this is my answer. I am also no good at staying on topic.

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3 Comments

  1. Ah, the soy sauce thing. I had a somewhat similar experience. I have a Quang Nam DaNang accent and so I found that several words that we use at home are different from words used amongst most of the more southern Vietnamese who form most of the Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. Growing up I always called soy sauce si dau. I’ve always had to adjust my accent/dialect to make myself understood when speaking Viet. It’s rather annoying, but one time, while cooking for a friend and her acquaintances, I asked for soy sauce by using the term I thought was most “standard”, nuoc tuong. I asked my Viet/Chinese friend to ask her Cantonese friends if they had any nuoc tuong (for some reason we were speaking to each other in Viet a lot back then). She had no idea what I was talking about so I said, “Soy sauce”. She looked over to her friends and said, “si dau.” Turns out, si dau is cantonese for soy sauce too. That’s what I get for trying too hard. I’ve never heard of yi tam or Um for that matter, but hey, I’m sure you’ve never heard of calling your dad’s younger sisters o instead of co, like we do.

    Reply

  2. Hehe. Once at dim sum, my little sister wanted soy sauce and she told me to ask for it b/c she didn’t know the Chinese word for it. Imagine her surprise when I asked for “xi dau.” Afterward, she exclaimed she didn’t know she already knew Chinese. 😛

    Yeah, it’s not like anyone in my family ever says this is what’s VNese and this is what’s Chinese. So as the oldest grandchild, I’m always used to being addressed as chi. Until I went to VN and my mom’s side would just address me by name b/c she’s the second youngest. I had no idea that VNese ranked by parents and not age.

    Or when my friend uses both his parents last names and I didn’t understand b/c I had never heard it before. And when I asked my mom, she said that’s b/c we’re Chinese. Sure enough, I paid attention and the next time I went to VN, I realized my mom’s family all has double last names too.

    What dialect is yi tam, do you know?

    Reply

  3. Hong Lien –

    No, indeed, I have never heard of anyone calling their dad’s younger sisters ‘O’.

    Nuoc tuong also confuses me because my family call hoi sin sauce tuong, and nothing else. Oh, the dramas in Ha Noi when I ate pho.

    Wandering Chopsticks –

    You should read my post entitled ‘Home Again’, in which I briefly bemoan the confusion of titles based on filial relationships.

    Being the child of the eldest (Um) and pretty darn close to eldest (Ba) on both sides means that I have always been rather rude and privy to calling people by, gasp, their first name.

    I do know what dialect yi tam is, but I cannot for the life of me think of the word at the moment (or indeed in the past week since I’ve read your comment). I need to check with my parents and get back to you on that one. Terrible, huh? Uh huh.

    *** General comment coming up ***

    I am loving the stories I elicit from my dear readers about our Viet-ness.

    Reply

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