‘Hello’ in Chinese is pretty easy, right? Nee how! (你好 ni2hao3). Most children know it, and you can hear it shouted at you in the street, just as we might hear ha lou shouted at us in the street.
But anyone who is part of a Chinese family probably knows it’s not that easy. Because you don’t say 你好 to your husband’s grandmother, or to his auntie. Although you might to his little cousin.
It’s a complicated business because each member of a Chinese family has a different name (term of address), and that name should be used when saying hello.
Husband’s dad’s eldest brother = 大伯 da bo, addressed by 大伯好 da bo hao!
Husband’s mum’s second youngest sister = 三姨 san yi, addressed by 三姨好 san yi hao!
There are words, numbers, occasionally names thrown in for younger relatives. It’s confusing.
But then there’s people on the street. People you don’t even know, but maybe your husband’s parents know. And they need to be addressed by the right term. The rule of thumb most of the time is people around your parents age are 阿姨 ayi and 叔叔 shushu. If not quite of that generation then 哥 ge and 姐 jie are probably good. But then there’s some random ones, which could depend on someone’s job, or some other unknown factor. I came across a new one the other day when we went to see my husband’s old coach and his wife, who we addressed as 教练 jiaolian and 师娘shiniang (couldn’t even find it in the dictionary – must be a northern thing…) So it’s really confusing. Fortunately for me, my MiL has got that it’s confusing and when introducing her 媳妇 xifu (that would be me [no, she’s not calling me her wife, but rather daughter-in-law!! confusing]) to others, she’s got into the habit of saying ‘calling this random person 叔叔 shushu would be fine’, which helps a lot. Especially as R is surprisingly crap at remembering the correct names (he calls himself Chinese..!).
But the new level of confusion came after me and R had our wedding banquet, and I was officially required to call the in-laws Ma and Ba. I struggled with this idea for a while before deciding that not calling them this would cause them a lot more disappointment/offence/potential loss of face than calling them this would cause me. So I went for it. But the problem here is that I’ve never heard my husband say 妈好 Ma hao! or 爸好 Ba hao! That would be ‘too formal’. Instead they just say ‘I’m here’ or ‘you’re here’ or ‘I’m going’, which for me is a bit too informal. Being too formal creates distance between us and can be seen as impolite in Chinese culture, which is hard to comprehend coming from a culture which requires a ‘thank you’ for passing the salt. Super confusing!
Do you have trouble remembering the names for family members? How do you address your in-laws?