Daily Anecdotes: Whatchamacallit

While working at the Canadian school in Beijing many of my fellow teachers would asked me, “Why do the students call us ‘teacher’ instead of ‘Ms. Smith’?” New arrivals to China are often baffled by this method of address. Some wonder if it is akin to calling a school custodian “janitor.” Is it impolite to address someone by his occupation?

This is one of those counterintuitive issues that get new arrivals in cultural trouble. Unlike in many western countries it is a sign of respect here in China to call a person by his post in life. In fact, the number of instances when it’s acceptable to address another person directly by name, or simply starting a conversation without prefacing with a proper appellation is significantly more limited than in Anglophone societies.

This emphasis on titles of respect is most apparent in the extensive Chinese vocabulary for familial relations. Whereas in America a simple lexicon of “aunt,” “uncle,” “cousin,” “grandparents,” and “in-law” will get you through most family gatherings, this limited set of labels in China equips you to speak with the precision of a 3-year-old.

The intricate web of Chinese family titles begins with the paternal and maternal dichotomy. For example, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother are both “uncle” in English, but in Chinese they would be “jiu” and “shu,” respectively. A relative’s age also determines the appropriate title. Thus, my father’s younger brother is “shu” but his older brother is “da ye” to me. Whether one is related by blood or marriage also shapes their appellation. When it comes to aunts my father’s younger brother’s wife is “shen” while his sister is “gu.” There are even specific titles for the more tenuous familial relationships, like “lian qiao,” which describes two men married to two sisters. Now, when have you ever called someone a name to such telling detail in English?

Family titles may be complex but at least things are clear. What to call people outside of the family is a trickier question. There seems to be labels to endless specificity for addressing people in every station in life. Using the wrong one can be disrespectful.

The general rule for acquaintances is to address each other by job titles. Hence, even though my mom only taught classes for a few years at the start of her career, legions of people they knew in university still refer to her as “Li lao shi.” This naming scheme is also transitive, so students of my mother’s one-time students take to calling her “shi nai” (literally “teacher grandma”), even if they are her age or older. Other common job-based titles include “chu zhang,” “ju zhang,” (two mid-level bureaucratic ranks) and the pervasive “zong” (meaning “chief,” short for “chief executive officer”). In fact, the latter is a widely abused title as everyone likes to flatter their business associates with the “zong” title regardless of whether they are CEO of anything.

If you think figuring out what to call acquaintances can get you in a pickle things get even fuzzier when it comes to near strangers and service people. Life was easy as a child when I had a simple system of calling everyone that looked younger than my parents “shu shu” and “ayi” (“uncle” and “auntie”); men slightly older than my father were shown due respect with “bai bai”; and people with white hair undoubtedly became “ye ye” and “nai nai” (“grandpa” and “grandma”).

Now that I’m an adult I can no longer resort to these childish titles and have to figure out for myself what the appropriate appellations are in any social situation. Last week, while crossing China westward in a train I mistakenly called a train attendant “fu wu yuan” (“waiter,” the most common way of addressing service people) when the proper name should’ve been “lie che yuan” (“train car attendant”). On my return flight I tried to avoid repeating my mistake and didn’t dare to ask for water until I could remember the name for “flight attendant” is “cheng wu yuan.”

There’s plenty of room for blunders when you’re unsure of someone’s occupation or age. For example, when asking a stranger for directions it’s always hard to know whether to call him “lao da ye” (someone of your parents’ generation but slight older) or “lao ye ye” (“old grandpa”).

My greatest solace in this maze of respectful labels is in knowing that many Chinese feel just as awkward as I do addressing strangers. So much has changed in China over the last twenty years — titles have come and gone – frequently leaving people grappling for the right word.

Before the economic open door policy and its moderating effect on communist ideology, Chinese commonly addressed each other by “tong zhi” (“comrade”). Nowadays this title is hopelessly outdated and it has also been re-appropriated as a tongue-in-cheek method of address among gay people.

Immediately after “comrade” went out of fashion, Western sensibilities became a la mode and Chinese began calling each other “Mister” and “Miss” (“xian sheng”, “xiao jie”). Today, it’s still fine to call a man “Mister” but if you call a young lady “Miss” she might slap you in the face for insinuating that she works in the world’s oldest profession.

Eager-to-please merchants and vendors have tried to circumvent potential embarassments by speaking to their customers in a familial tone. Older customers are called “ayi” (“auntie”) or “da jie” (“big sister”), younger ones become “xiao mei” (“little sister”). It’s a delicate balance for salespeople between showing an older woman due respect (“ayi”) and flattering her (“big sister”). Things often take a hilarious turn when I shop with my mother, whom vendors like to call “da jie,” but then they turn to me and address me as “xiao mei.” Mixing of generations (calling my mother and me both “sister”) is a big cultural no-no.

In recent years I’ve noticed a new trend among innovative merchants. “Mei nu” (“pretty girl”) and “shuai ge” (“handsome guy”) have become hugely popular. Even elderly vendors sporting heads full of white hair have adopted this hip vernacular in an attempt to attract customers’ attention. Now there’s something really uncomfortable for me to have a “lao ye ye” call out “hey hottie”! This set of titles, like others, will probably fade from common usage soon enough, leaving us once again with the question of what to call each other!

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