'Auntie' Navigates Vietnam

The UCLA Graduate Student Quarterly profiled Merav Shohet, a former graduate student in anthropology and recipient of a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. Shohet is currently an assistant professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Published in Fall 2008, Graduate Quarterly

In the United States, even friends might hesitate to ask the delicate question: "How old are you?" But in Vietnam, that’s the first thing people ask when meeting a stranger, before "What’s your name?" or "What do you do?" You can’t even say hello properly—and saying it properly is essential—until you know the other person’s age, says Merav Shohet, who recently returned from a Fulbright-sponsored field research trip in and around Danang.

Someone slightly older would be called "older brother or sister," she says, but more than 20 years age difference would call for "younger aunt or uncle." Age isn’t the only issue, however. A younger cousin might still be called "older brother" if his father is older than your father. "It can get pretty confusing how you navigate these things," she says.

Acknowledging hierarchy is obviously an important element of this. "Even before babies know how to speak," Merav says, "they’re already being taught to bow or to fold their hands in a respectful gesture when they greet or take leave of someone."

Merav was called "auntie" by the younger people she met during her time in Danang. She lived with a woman who worked for one of her sponsors in Vietnam, the College of Foreign Languages in Danang, and her grown family. Through her and previous connections, Merav was introduced to other families, and she also researched families in developing suburbs and rural areas. Although she conducted a broad-based ethnography, her primary focus was the concept of sacrifice: What did that mean to people of different ages, and how did it become part of the morality of their everyday lives, despite political or class divisions?

One of the primary expressions of sacrifice is the tribute paid to ancestors, and family obligations among the living. Merav was astonished, at first, by "the amount of time and resources Vietnamese devote to the dead." No matter what their religion, an altar honoring deceased members of the family has a prominent place in every home, but more strikingly, perhaps, are the annual tributes. Every single year, everything stops on the anniversary of a death, Merav says. "You take time off from work, and you cook for a minimum of 30, and often 90 people." Besides holding feasts to honor their own deceased parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, people are expected to attend anniversary feasts for members of their extended family. In many cases, families pool resources to make this happen. "It’s a big deal," Merav says, "a way of affirming your social relationships and duties."

At first, these occasions "almost seemed banal," Merav says, "because most of the people being honored had been dead a long time. It seemed like they were going through the motions, a mock spectacle of grief." Then, an unexpected death took place in her host family, changing her relationship to them and her attitudes about the anniversary practice. The family mourned for the first few days, but "once the body was buried, they were not supposed to cry anymore," she says. "Their grief was supposed to go underground."

All of these experiences are recorded in hundreds of pages of notes and thousands of pictures Merav brought back from Danang. She also accumulated 85 hours of videotape and 30 hours of audiotape, the numbers reflecting that the Vietnamese seemed "to like me having the camera but not the tape recorder." This year, she has a data analysis fellowship from the Department of Anthropology to support her work.

During her undergraduate years as an interdisciplinary social studies major at Harvard University, Merav did an ethnographic study of eating disorders for her honors thesis. When she decided on graduate school a few years later, she recalled that "as one of the most meaningful things I ever did." She chose anthropology because of her interest in ethnographic research, social theory, languages, and different cultures.

During her Vietnam fieldwork, city residents often told her "if you want to study culture, you have to go to the countryside." Yet, even in the cities, with their shops and scooters, she says, "they still maintain quite a few traditions, particularly the worshipping of ancestors, and this allowed me to explore the relation between political and personal histories and memories."

Published: Friday, November 19, 2010