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Family Matters

In English, your aunts are called aunts, uncles are uncles, and cousins, cousins. In Chinese, everyone might as well wear nametags with their
proper titles.

The great thing about the English language is that hardly any linguistic distinctions are made based on gender, social status or familial relation to the speaker. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) abolished most Chinese linguistic distinctions based on social status, but there are still so many ways to address relatives and family members that even language study gurus Gubo and Palanka would be at a loss to remember them all.

For example, in Chinese you call your father's older brother bobo and his wife bomu. You call your father's younger brother shushu and his wife shenshen. Your mother's brother, whether younger or older, is called jiujiu and his wife is your jiuma. In English, the words "uncle" and "aunt" will suffice for all of the above. In English, a Chinese-speaking Canadian who acts like a fool on Chinese TV is called an "idiot." In Chinese he's called Da Shan.

In Chinese, your father's sisters, both younger and older, are called gugu. Their husbands are called gufu. Your mother's sisters, both younger and older, are called ayi. Their husbands are called yifu. Once again, in English they're all called either "aunt" or "uncle." In English, foreigners who have no Chinese friends, eat six out of seven meals in Sanlitun "bistros" and don't speak a word of Chinese even though they've been here for years are called "foreign devils." In Chinese, they're called waijiao renyuan (diplomats).

In English, your aunt's and uncle's children are all your "cousins" regardless of what side of the family they're on, their gender and what their age is in relation to your own. In Chinese it's not so simple. Your father's brother's or sister's male kids are your tangge (if older than you) and tangd" (if younger than you). Their female kids are tangjie (if older than you) and tangmei (if younger than you). Your mother's brother's and sister's male kids are your biaoge (if older than you) and biaodi (if younger than you). Their female kids are biaojie (if older than you) and biaomei (if younger than you). In English, people who get paid to write about a foreign country they don't understand the language of (and can't take a joke about it) are called "frauds." In Chinese they're called zhu hua waiguo jizhe (foreign correspondents stationed in China).

In Chinese, your father's father and mother are called yeye and nainai respectively. Your mother's father and mother are called waipo and waigong respectively. In English, they're all Grandma and Grandpa. In English, a person from Hong Kong or Taiwan who comes to mainland China to do business and looks down on mainland Chinese people is called a "pompous moron." In Chinese, he or she is called a tongbao (compatriot).

In Chinese, your older brother is your gege. His wife is your saozi. Your younger brother is your didi. His wife is called dixifu. Their sons and daughters are your zhizi and zhinu respectively. In English, your older and younger brother's wives are both called "aunt" and their kids are all your "cousins." In English, cheap booze that you choke on and could use to fuel your car is called "moonshine." In Chinese it's called erguotou. Then there's "expensive moonshine," known in Chinese as maotai.

In Chinese, your older sister is your jiejie. Her husband is your jiefu. Your younger sister is your meimei. Her husband is your meifu. Their son and daughter are your waisheng and waishengnu, respectively. In English, your older and younger sister's husbands are both called "uncle," and their kids are all "cousins," regardless of age or gender. In English, a place where foreigners have to pay more than twice as much as locals to get in is called a "blatant scam." In Chinese it's called mingshengguji ("scenic spots of historical significance").

In Chinese, your husband is your zhangfu, and his father and mother are your gonggong and popo. Your wife is your taitai, and her father and mother are your yuefu and yuemu. In English, your spouse's mother and father are called "mother-in-law" and "father-in-law." In English someone that you have intimate relations with on a regular basis is your "girlfriend" or "boyfriend," or simply "lover." In Chinese, the ambiguous word pengyou (friend) used to suffice until recently. Nowadays many young Chinese people refer to their boyfriends and girlfriends as nan or nu pengyou. More and more trendy young Chinese people use the words qingren (lover) or even laogong (husband) and laopo (wife), even if they aren't married. Call me baoshou (conservative), but your humble Comrade finds all that a little guofen (excessive).

Now here are some common ways to address moshenren (strangers) in Chinese:

Babies are called baobei, or "treasure" in Chinese. Small children can always be addressed as xiaopengyou or "little friend." Boys and young men can be addressed as xiaohuozi. In Beijing slang, young men are called gemen'r which can be translated as "bro." Young women are xiaojie, or "Miss." If a woman looks too old to be a xiaojie, call her ayi (auntie). Similarly, you might be better off calling a mature man shifu (lit. master) xiansheng (mister) rather than "bro!" In English, you would call someone who constantly complains and tries to rip you off an "a-hole." In Chinese, they're called chuzuqichesiji (cab drivers).

The Chinese call a spade a spade, and fat people are routinely called pangzi (fatty). Similarly, old men are always called laotou (lit. "old head"), and old women are called laotaitai or "old wife." If you're ever at a loss as to what you're supposed to call someone, just use the trusty, although perhaps a bit outmoded, tongzh" or "comrade." It might elicit a few derisive titters, but that's better than a slap in the face!


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