More than a week ago, my Chinese mother-in-law spent a whole day helping someone plant their rice paddy. That “someone” turned out to be a relative.
“She was out helping our Jiujiu plant the fields,” my sister-in-law told me at dinner. Jiujiu is the Chinese word for uncles on the mother’s side. But as far as I knew, we only had two uncles on John’s mother’s side — Da Jiujiu and Xiao Jiujiu. Neither of them needed assistance in the fields, especially Xiao Jiujiu who just became our village secretary. How could she possibly help someone called “Jiujiu?”
“Oh, that’s the godfather’s little brother.” Godfather, as in John’s godfather (John needed a godfather because his Chinese zodiac sign, the horse, conflicted with his father’s, the rat).
Then I remembered that, some time ago, my Chinese mother-in-law told me the godfather was a relative — but I’d forgotten how and asked my sister-in-law. “He’s the Gunainai’s son.”
“Gunainai?” I felt as if I was getting tangled in the branches of this family tree.
Then my Chinese mother-in-law, who had come back and overheard our conversation, sat down to explain things. “Gunainai is Waigong’s older sister,” Waigong being the word for grandfather on the mother’s side. “I call her Guma, you call her Gunainai.”
“So many different names, it’s confusing!” I said that, in the US, we used the same word for grandparents, aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. But in the process of explaining this, I used ‘Ayi’ to refer to aunt on the father’s side, which is all wrong.
My sister-in-law wrinkled her brow. “Don’t you mean ‘Shenshen’?”
“Sorry, Shenshen. So, who do I call ‘Ayi’ then?”
“Ayi is my younger sister,” my Chinese mother-in-law said.
“And you call Ayi’s husband Yifu,” added my sister-in-law.
I slapped my forehead. “Terrible! Last time I saw Ayi I referred to her husband as ‘Shushu.’”
My sister-in-law shot me a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry about it. It’s easy to feel as if you’re lost.”
Then as if I wasn’t already lost, she looked at her baby girl and said, “she will call John’s oldest brother Bofu.” Bofu? I’d never heard the term “Bofu” in my entire life — at least, the life that had included my Chinese family.
But I have to wonder: will it take me my whole life to keep all of these names and relations together?
Have you ever been confused by all of the different names for Chinese relatives?