The name game

Addressing someone properly in China isn’t as simple as shouting, “Hey, Joe!” What should you be calling people? I’ve been wondering the same myself… Read my take here or on China Daily:

I come from a big clan that likes to apply the term “family” very generously. For many Beijingers and other Chinese urban dwellers, a family dinner means sitting down with mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, perhaps an uncle or two, and maybe some in-laws. But back home in the northeastern countryside, getting the family together meant I would be greeting relatives as tenuously tied to me as my grandmother’s cousin’s grandchildren or my mother’s brother’s brother-in-law.

As you can guess, one problem with a large jolly family is that it requires one to learn how to address all the random relations. In a Confucian society, filial piety and respect for the proper order of things are of supreme importance, so it’s not as simple as calling a man “uncle,” a woman “aunt,” and everyone else directly by their name.

To cope with the problem of what to call my many relatives, I devised simple rules as a child. At the frequent family reunions on my mother’s side, any male over 1.8 meters tall with hardy features was likely related to me by blood, so I would call him jiu (maternal uncle). Any female meeting a lower, but still relatively high, height requirement would be a yi (maternal aunt). Males and females not bearing strong physical resemblance to us were probably related to me by marriage, so I would call them yi fu (husband of maternal aunt) and jiu ma (wife of maternal uncle), to be safe.

These rules weren’t fail-proof, but they got me through most of the merrily confusing gatherings of my childhood.

Things got more complicated as I got older and started dealing with people who weren’t related to me at all. A young Chinese adolescent has to know the proper terms of address for strangers of different ages. Fortunately, children and teens can mostly get away with using generic pseudo-familial titles, such as “old grandpa” (lao yeye) for old men and “aunt” (a yi) for middle-aged women.

It’s when you cross into adulthood that things get really messy. To spend a day in China as a grown-up is to negotiate a hundred small transactions, from buying clothes at a market to hailing “black cabs.” In these commercial situations, calling someone “uncle” is a tad too cozy and can appear horribly “country bumpkin-ish.”

I’ve often wished that I came of age earlier in China’s modern history. In the 1980’s, when people were still loosely held together by an ideological camaraderie, one term fit all – “comrade.” By the 1990’s, things had changed, but were still relatively easy. Out went the “comrade” (for more connotations than one) and in came the Western style “Mister” and “Miss” forms of address. xian sheng and xiao jie became the new universal titles.

But, by the time I was entering adulthood, things had taken a more complex turn. Somewhere along the way, as my countrymen plunged into private enterprise with zeal and my countrywomen entered industries to entertain the new flock of businessmen, “miss” became hugely inappropriate. Once xiao jie became a euphemism for “call girl,” I could hardly use it (and its male linguistic counterpart, xian sheng) in everyday life.

So, what have I had to work with as an adult? I’ve learned that in many formal settings, it’s still wise to default to calling someone by their professional designation. It’s always respectful to address an educator as “Teacher Wang” and a bureaucrat as “Department Chief Li.” And, for the most part, it’s flattering to call a businessman zong, short for zong cai, or CEO. The exception with the latter is that as the Chinese practiced their ability to out-flatter each other, we now occasionally find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of addressing a lowly company driver as “Chief Executive Guo.”

While I’ve been struggling with finding the right appellations, my compatriots have struggled as well, especially those working in service industries. Salespeople seem to have it hardest, for they are perpetually performing an awkward dance around their biggest customers, the young women. For this clientele, a yi would be age-inappropriate, “madame” too formal, and xiao jie implying that she is of ill repute.

I notice some of the humbler vendors, such as street peddlers and drivers, still using familial titles, calling young female customers “little sister”, or xiao mei. Logically, older male customers are then da ge (“older brother”). But, depending on where you live in China, these titles can be problematic, for in folk and nostalgic culture, “little sister” and “big brother” are coy names used between courting couples.

A salesperson also has to master the delicate balance between flattery and respect. There have been times when I have gone shopping with my mother and both of us are dismayed to hear a saleslady eagerly calling her “big sister” while referring to me as “little sister.” Mixing generations is a major Confucian taboo.

Since I’ve come back to live in Beijing last year, I’ve noticed that more and more strangers are using the “in” lingo of shuai ge and mei nu (the colloquial equivalents of “hot stud” and “pretty chick”). I’m not so comfortable yet with homely aunties and uncles referring to me as “chick” while selling me bottled water, but perhaps I need not worry. Before I get used to this moniker, the name game will surely change again. I might as well just resign to the fact that I will perpetually play catch up when it comes to knowing what to call people.


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