Auntie, or Big Sister?

Believe me, I try to be grateful for the corrections. I know the phase won’t survive much longer.

My 8-yr-old daughter is in such a happy-to-correct-Dad’s-Mandarin phase that she hand-signals proper tones in the middle of my business phone conversations; she interrupts my dinner table stories; she whispers fixes to me in the back of cabs as I talk with the driver.

But sometimes simultaneous correction just isn’t an option. Like yesterday, when, as on many days, we had walked over for some frolicking at the unreal campus of Beijing Sports University (北京体育大学), the place where the sight of 188cm girls and their 200cm boyfriends doesn’t make you lift an eyebrow anymore, the place where you can amble along wide, traffic-free streets, past perfectly sculpted lawns that are actually green, by javelin-throwers and martial arts specialists deep in practice next to the lawn bowlers (at least that’s what it looks like to me) who are equally intense, through a campus of olympic pools and world-class courts of all types, indoor and out, of soccer fields and freshly-swept rubberized tracks and baseball and cricket and gymnasiums towering high enough to give Paul Bunyan vertigo.

It’s a beautiful place, and the residents are friendly. Yesterday a third-year student had stopped by for a chat for no particular reason.

After she left, my daughter said, “Daddy, you only made one big mistake.”

“What was that?”

“You told me to ‘叫阿姨’ [jiào āyí, roughly ‘say hi to Auntie’]. You should have said ‘叫姐姐’ [jiào jiějie, ‘say hi to big sister’]!”

“Oh” was about all I could say.

I’m not sure which realization hit me first.

  • My daughter is old enough to think of a 20-yr-old as jiějie?!
  • I’m old enough that a college student is no longer of my (āyí – shūshu, auntie-uncle) generation?
  • I’ve just insulted a perfectly innocent bystander

Well, better to be corrected than not. But I do secretly wonder how universal her generational intuitions are.

13 responses to “Auntie, or Big Sister?”

  1. Julen says:

    Nice story. Your daughter’s correcting phase must be great for your mandarin, especially the tones! Adult people never do these correction, out of respect I guess, and in the end we are stuck with our lousy tones.

    Regarding the jiejie – ayi question, I see children calling my friend ayi all the time, although she is 25yo and looks very much like a student…

    From the way you tell the story, this is more about your girl wanting to be a meimei, rather than about the ayi wanting to be a jiejie… sounds like a new phase might be coming up soon! :)

  2. Kellen Parker says:

    I was in a store with a female friend once and the friend called the clerk 姐姐. The clerk immediately snapped “How old are you‽” To her horror, my friend realised she just called a younger person 姐姐 instead of 妹妹. Her shame was enough that she ended up buying something when she originally had no such intention.

    I can picture you surrounded by equally-heighted people, but it really just makes me feel all the shorter. It was bad enough with you and John P in the same room. I can only feel fear for a campus full of you people. That’s why I prefer the art colleges.

  3. Kellen Parker says:

    p.s. Picturing air tones from her in the background of a business call is damn hilarious.

  4. André says:

    Isn’t this just a matter of age difference. You call someone 阿姨 when the age gap between you so that she could actually be your auntie. Same with 姐姐。Of course, there will be grey areas, but then you just go on the safe said, right, and call her 姐姐, ’cause if she’s older than that, she’ll just be flattered.

    I know, this is just a general assumption that doesn’t really help in all cases, but then again, do really all Chinese have the same perception of this? I doubt it.

  5. GAC says:

    Hmm, honestly I have never run into a Chinese kid that’s your daughter’s age. I’ve heard a lot of ladies telling babies and toddlers to call me 叔叔,though.

  6. Aaron says:

    Props to Kellen for use of the interrobang.

    (Or is the blog automatically converting from separately-typed ! and ?… Testing: !? ?!)

  7. GAC says:

    Oh, I did not see that.

  8. Syz says:

    Interrobang‽ Can’t say I’m a fan, but sharp eyes, Aaron. I had to read carefully to find that — looks like a botched font job to me.

    @GAC: well, assuming you’re mostly most adolescent, it makes sense I think that they’d call you 叔叔. In fact, the pre/post adolescence thing is the principle I was operating under for referring to the college student as 阿姨 rather than 姐姐. @Julen’s experience with the 25yr-old “阿姨” friend seems to support me there.

    @André: of course you’re right that it’s relative, but my “intuition” such as it is would’ve put the cutoff for 姐姐 at just a few years older than the person who’s referring to her, rather than, say, 12 years older and post-adolescent. I gotta find some more 8-yr-olds to try this on.

  9. GAC says:

    Oh, I forgot that on the Internet no one knows how old you are. I am 22 years old, as a reference point for my earlier comment.

  10. Syz says:

    @gac: but not in dog years, right? 😉

  11. GAC says:

    Haha, no. That’s really 22 years. I guess some Chinese will say I’m 23 (or 24 maybe? I was born in November)

  12. Katie says:

    Depends where you are too, right? I recall one of my Chinese friends, who I would guess to be in her late 30’s, telling me how surprised she was to be addressed as 阿姨 by, say, fruit vendors, in one of the cities she had lived in. I think it may have been Tianjin?

    p.s. Not that it’s relevant to this post, but hooray for easy IPA!

  13. Kellen Parker says:

    Props to Aaron for catching the interrobang.

    Katie: glad you’re enjoying it.

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