In this short piece, erin Khue Ninh, editor and educator, ponders about the nuances of the Vietnamese language and in particular, the untranslatable but meaningful “ơi.”
I have been thinking about “ơi” lately. I’ve been thinking how it is the most heartaching word in Vietnamese language, and how it is hard to explain.
Maybe you learned it with “Má”; I learned how it worked calling “Mẹ ơi.” The long vowel drawn out on my breath, or staccato with excitement. A Look what I found! Or scraped knees from a spill. Panic, from bad dreaming. Or a tattle about to be told. “Ơi” can telegraph all those things and more. But always it means, Come to me. Hear me. I need you and know you’re near.
I came across a headstone in the Japanese American/now also heavily Vietnamese American section of a San Jose cemetery a few months ago. Young man’s grave. Etched on it I read, “Bố Mẹ thương và nhớ con lắm, con ơi.” The “con ơi” set me weeping, but I couldn’t translate it. Mom and Dad love and miss you very much… o child? Wrong. It’s like they’re still speaking to him, I tried to explain. You don’t say ơi if you don’t think the other person can hear you.
The Vietnamese-English dictionary says “ơi” means “Hey, hello” or alternatively “Yes.” Here are its examples:
- Hey, hello
- em bé ơi, dậy đi thôi
Hey baby, wake up!
- Bố ơi – Ơi, bố đây
Hey, dad! – Yes
To say “ơi” is like “Hey” is a stretch, though. You use it to hail people, sure, and those people can be strangers, like waiters in restaurants. (Ah, the limited language-use contexts of the second generation.) But it could never be Althusser’s cop’s “Hey, you!” “Ỏi” is a vulnerable sound, with a hint of supplication to it. It asks to be recognized. “Hey,” on the other hand, is a familiarity, bidding someone answer to what you’ve called them, whether they like it or not; actually saying “Hey” to your dad can get you smacked in the head.
“Hello” is even worse an approximation. It doesn’t work at all to use “ơi” on first walking into a room by way of greeting. People would look at you like, Yeah? What do you want? Imagine tugging someone frantically on the sleeve and then not saying anything when she turns around. Creepy.
And “ơi” said in echo means, “I hear you,” so maybe “Yes?” but not “Yes.” It’s a call, so when someone repeats the word back to you, it’s the response you were listening for.
That’s my ode to “ơi” today—for my Vietnamese American friends who are having babies, or my friends who are having babies with Vietnamese people. May you hear everything that’s in it, and may the sound of closeness not fade.
erin Khuê Ninh is blog editor of Hyphen. She teaches in the department of Asian American studies at UCSB, and is the author of Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature.
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