In my first article distributed in North America, I tackle the tricky issue of just what you’re supposed to call people in China. Read it here or on News China (April 5, 2010): http://www.inewsweek.cn/en/Essay/21/206-1.shtml
The easiest way to score a free ticket (and visa) to China is to sign up as an English teacher. Each year, legions of eager young expats arrive ready to try out teaching before finding their true calling in other domains, or before heading back home. As the new arrivals discover the myriad delights and difficulties of living in China they usually puzzle over one particular local quirk.
“Why do the students keep calling me ‘Teacher?’”
North Americans find this title especially troubling for its perceived political incorrectness. A Canadian friend, fresh off the plane from New Brunswick, asked me, “Isn’t it a little rude? I wouldn’t address the custodian at my school back home as ‘Janitor.’”
What holds true in Canada certainly doesn’t in China. Here, calling someone “teacher” shows proper Confucian deference to a noble profession.
But the matter doesn’t end there. While “teacher” is fairly innocuous, the question of what to call people in general is rather thorny in a society caught in a post-Communist post-Confucian identity crisis.
Designations were a non-issue in China during its most politically fervent decades. People referred to peers as “comrades,” and to superiors or elders as “so-and-so- rank,” for instance, “Secretary Wu” or “Brigadier Liu.” The term “comrade” – meaning literally “common ambition” – was sufficiently warm and vague to be applicable in most social encounters, whether with a fellow soldier or the postman.
The identity crisis over what to call each other appeared in the 1980s, when collective revolutionary ambition gave way to mass consumption. Calling someone “comrade” became terribly démodé in “open door” China.
Still later, “comrade” lost more of its applicability as the homosexual community appropriated it as a tongue-in-cheek term of endearment. Nowadays, referring to a man as “comrade” in public is not politesse, but rather an “outing.”
When “comrade” dropped out of common usage other forms of address came into fashion. As the state stopped being the dominant employer people delved into other professions leading to other designations. The late 1980s saw average Chinese applying titles such as “Department Chief Li” and “Bureau Chief Huang” to each other with zeal.
As a sign of the changing times, “zong”, short for “zongcai” or “CEO,” became one of the more popular appellations. As my countrymen plunged into private enterprise, suddenly everyone was a “zong.” Overuse of this title soon eroded its appeal, for it wasn’t long before people found themselves addressing the lowly company driver as “Chief Executive Guo.”
Even when market-savvy terms like “zong” were trendy there were situations when job-based titles were unfeasible. How do you address the stranger on the street? Or the ambiguously-employed neighborhood familiar face?
As long as Confucian ideals still hold sway over China one can always fall back on pseudo-familial titles. So, we can refer to elderly men as “laoyeye” (“old grandpa”) and middle-aged women as “ayi” (“aunt”). These designations work in the direst of situations when one is at a loss for better forms of address. But, in fast-changing modern Chinese society these familial titles are increasingly losing favor for their humble “country bumpkin” tone.
To spend a day in China is to negotiate a hundred small transactions. In most commercial situations, vendors and buyers want to assume a metropolitan air. “Old grandpa” or “uncle” simply won’t do when bargaining for business.
Therefore, in the 1990s, usage of the western “Mister” and “Miss,” once considered too bourgeois, surged. Out went “comrade” and in came “xiansheng” and “xiaojie.” However, this being China, things changed quickly and I hardly grew used to being called “miss” before it, in turn, became hugely inappropriate.
Let me explain. When private business started booming in China so did the world’s oldest profession. The “sanpei xiaojie,” or literally the “miss who accompanies three things,” became fixtures at business dinners, originally intended to accompany people while eating, drinking and singing, but others also added “sleeping” to their offerings. Thus, “xiaojie” became a euphemism for call girl.
Once again, what to call someone became a national conundrum. I’ve since noticed some Chinese reverting to familial titles entirely, referring to young female customers as “little sister,” or “xiaomei,” and older customers as “dage” or “dajie” (“older brother” and “older sister”). This is an imperfect solution, for these titles can still get you in trouble. In popular nostalgia and folk custom, “little sister” and “big brother” are used by coyly courting couples. If I were to address an older vendor as “dage” he might think I’m coming onto him.
Another difficulty with using familial titles is striking the delicate balance between flattery and respect. Salesgirls flutter about confusedly when I go shopping with my mother. In one instant they call my mother “big sister” (even if she’s old enough to be their mother) before turning to me as “little sister.” This is not a good mistake, like the “Oh, I thought you were sisters!” compliment that Western salespeople lavish on their customers. Confusing people of different generations is a major taboo in Chinese society.
Where does that leave us? Lately, I’ve heard “shuaige” and “meinu,” the Chinese colloquial equivalents of “hot guy” and “pretty lady,” tossed around everywhere. Although this is better than “miss” I’m still not comfortable with strangers calling out to me as “pretty lady” in an attempt to sell pirate DVDs. But perhaps I don’t need to worry. Before I settle into this designation it will surely change again.