Years ago when my husband Jun and I got our little red marriage books in China, I remember traveling back to his village and proudly showing off the photos of our civil marriage ceremony. While it still didn’t count to his family as a real wedding (in China, it’s normal to get married on the books, called dengji/登记 in Chinese, well before you actually have a wedding ceremony), they were pleased to see the two of us committed for life.
And as I learned, that commitment meant changing how I addressed Jun’s parents. From then on, Jun instructed me to call them Laoba (老爸) and Laoma (老妈), just like him. Or Baba (爸爸) and Mama (妈妈) — the universal Chinese words for “Dad” and “Mom” — if I so desired. The bottom line was, I would now refer to them as if they were my own parents, in the most intimate terms once only reserved for my father and mother.
This isn’t the norm in the America I grew up in, where you call your in-laws by their first names. And given all the jokes about in-laws (and the American tendency to want to live as far from your in-laws as possible), I’m sure there are some Americans out there privately referencing their in-laws using expletives. The bottom line, though, is that in America there’s always this implied distance from your in-laws — a distance that I was never expected to have with Jun’s parents.
Being suddenly asked to call two people who never raised me “Mom” and “Dad” should be an adjustment. And to be sure, it did take some getting used to. But it was actually a lot easier than I thought for a very simple reason.
I was calling them “Mom” and “Dad” in Chinese, not in my native language of English.
Even though Laoba, Laoma, Baba and Mama were just as intimate as the words “Mom” and “Dad” that I grew up using, I had never called my parents by the Chinese versions. So in way, it actually freed me to easily adjust to using them with Jun’s parents. I didn’t feel like I was stretching any definition of who “Mom” and “Dad” were because it sounded different.
Now it’s like second nature and I don’t even think about it anymore. That’s who they are — Laoba and Laoma.
So I have to wonder, is it harder for Chinese people to get used to this? Do they struggle to refer to in-laws with such intimate terms?
Then again, this is just about what to call someone. Now family relationships, the day-to-day stuff, that’s the real struggle (one that, admittedly, can lead to the use of expletives or other unflattering names at times).
But that’s another story for another day.
What do you think?