‘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.

For example:
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?

16 thoughts on “Hello

  1. Don’t even get me started with this topic. It can be sooo hard to call the people we meet in China the proper form. Of course usually I can use the normal jie jie or ayi however when we meet some former bosses of my FIL it can get super complicated and even my wife got troubles remembering all the proper forms :p


  2. The names are so complicated! I always end up using just ayi and shushu, haha.

    But when I arrive to a place I always say nihao, no matter who and how many people are in the room. I know it is wrong. It just escapes from my mouth automatically. Luckily no one seems to care, my boyfriend never said anything and grandma always laughs when she sees me (as I assume she would be the more offended one because I say “ni”).


      • With grandparent-age relatives, yes… but I never do, it feels so rigid. The other day when we were visiting grandma and we were leaving, the usual goodbye is just saying goodbye, right? But I asked my boyfriend aloud: “Do you ever kiss your grandma? In Spain we kiss our grandmas”. So we both kissed her on the cheek and she was very happy, haha. I think more physical warmth is needed in this country… but maybe that is just me, I am a touchy Spaniard xD


    • That’s lovely 🙂
      I agree, physical warmth is very lacking. Sometimes I’m glad because it could definitely give rise to some awkwardness – I’ve seen my husband struggle in the UK sometimes not knowing what to do – but sometimes it would be lovely, and an extra way to show thanks or appreciation (which i find lacking).

      I did hug my FiL once, the most awkward thing ever, last time! Then when my parents came over i told my mum not to scare him but she just couldn’t help herself!


      • Haha, when my dad came to visit, my boyfriend warned his mom that my dad was going to kiss her in the cheeks… definitely something new for her! I think she blushed!


  3. Good lord! I thought I had it difficult trying to remember ‘ordinary’ names from in-laws (my husband comes from a very large, extended family and when all cousins/aunts/uncles etc. get together, as we did yesterday, it’s very tricky). But this sounds astonishingly complex – good luck!! I think it’s amazing you have mastered any of it! 🙂


  4. I have no knowledge about how to address anyone in my Chinese family, so I call them the same as Mr. Panda does, I use the Chinese names for his grandparents. He has so many aunts and he uses their correct names, but really, I just can’t remember who is 3.,4., and 5. aunt. as they are close in age, I can’t differentiate them. I therefore use the English first names. And really, I don’t care at all whether this is 100% correct or not. They are ok with it, they love me (the crazy airhead foreigner girlfriend) and I love them too. I friendly ni hao and nimen hao should be more than enough 😀

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