Rant: names and the Chinese way

There are three parts to this rant. You have been warned.

  1. What to call E’s grandmother
  2. What to call your wife
  3. What to call me

What to call E’s grandmother

The three ways E can refer to his Vancouver grandmother, who is his father’s mother, are

  • 嫲嫲: Cantonese – what I call my paternal grandmother
  • 阿媽: Taiwanese Mandarin – what NPY calls his maternal grandmother (we’ll get to that later)
  • 奶奶: Mandarin – you know, the language that’s steamrollering over every language – this is the exact same character used for “milk” and “mother-in-law”… confusing!

E’s cousin shares that grandmother where she is his mother’s mother so his nomenclature options are

  • 婆婆 外婆 阿婆: Cantonese
  • 外媽 / 俺媽: Taiwanese
  • 外婆 / 姥姥: Mandarin

Right off the bat, I referred to E’s grandmother the Cantonese way because E is entirely Cantonese from me and at most a quarter Taiwanese because NPY is (at most) half Taiwanese. I’m the one leading E’s Chinese education and am adamant in some ways. But since E was a year old (a year ago), he started spending two full days a week at his grandmother’s with his younger cousin. More recently, E is a sponge and he hears his cousin refer to their grandmother as 阿媽 so he calls follows along, with her encouragement.

Before the kiddos came along, I had a bit of an issue with calling NPY’s maternal grandmother 阿媽. It was admittedly because (1) it sounds pretentious to me because of the “ah” and the lilt on the “ma” (2) it’s “the Taiwanese way” but they aren’t that Taiwanese overall and, mostly, (3) it seemed to me that “ma” sounded too close to the word for mother (it is the same character) and she’s your grandmother, not your mother. But… I follow along and call his relatives using the same names NPY does.

Because I so like how there are unique names for your relatives in Chinese, it bugs the hell out of me that E and his cousin would call the same grandmother the same name when they are not related to her the same way. But as of this writing, I just realized that NPY and his cousins – be they the children of daughters like NPY is or children of sons – all call his maternal grandmother 阿媽, what you’re supposed call your paternal grandmother. Now why is that?

Theory 1 – They don’t care to be proper. And they are citing the same excuse MIL is saying, “so it doesn’t cause confusion” resulting when cousins are calling their grandmother two different names that sound kind of similar anyhow (阿媽 and 外媽). But… another realization to me. NPY is the oldest grandchild so I am curious what he called this grandmother before other grandchildren came along, if they started him on the wrong name from the very start, willfully having him call her the wrong name. I eschew the “confusion” excuse. I hung out with my cousins and we understood each other perfectly fine when we referred to the same grandparents and aunts and uncles by different names. Life is enriched this way.

Theory 2 – They are so Taiwanese, but their traditional terms for maternal grandmother are quite the throwback.  外媽 translate to “outside grandmother” (literally, it is “outside mother”) and she would refer to her daughter’s children as “outside grandchildren”. Does any grandmother want to be referred to as the “outside” one? As for 俺媽, I ran the 俺 character through Google Translate and it drew a blank. I’ll presuming that it’s a filler kind of character, much like 阿 which at least Google Translate came back with as meaning “O”!

Theory 3 – The Cantonese and Mandarin terms include the word 婆. Since I grew up with a 婆婆, I’m accustomed to it. I’ve learned that it is also an honorific that, for example, sales staff will address elderly female customers if they don’t know their names. That part, I’m not so accustomed to and would hesitate to use it myself for fear of insulting someone who didn’t think she’s old enough to be a “婆婆”! Anyhow, I can’t speak for others, but “婆” is a bit of a loaded term for me and I wonder if NPY’s grandmother and subsequently her daughter don’t want to be “婆婆” which is what NPY should call that grandmother and E’s cousin should call NPY’s mother, if they were Cantonese bent… which they aren’t.

Theory 4 – All of the grandchildren, NPY’s and fellow cousins, call this one grandmother 阿媽 which is what you call your father’s mother. There are ten grandchildren, five descended from two sons and five descended from two daughters but all of them are calling the grandmother as if she’s the paternal one. Where does that leave the real paternal grandmothers? I get it. I saw it in my own family. One of the mother or father’s side tends to dominate – happened with my mother’s side as well – and NPY’s mother’s side if powerful. For that reason, I advocate for his father’s side and it’s also the respect thing that chagrins me.

Throughout the theories I have outlined above, I think my issues are probably showing. Plainly stated, it’s a battle I feel whenever the topic of language comes up. There are so many instances of China stamping out the less populous cultures and languages with Mandarin such that I feel angst when Mandarin (whether from Mainland or Taiwan) encroaches on my life. Mandarin is undeniably the dialect of the future but E is three-quarters Cantonese and nobody will keep that alive if it weren’t for me.

I need to nip this in the bud and set a rule because MIL is bending it so long as I don’t address it, allowing or even encouraging E to call her by the wrong name because “it’s easier” or it’s the “Taiwanese way”. A Cantonese way to refer to your father’s mother that I am familiar with but didn’t use is 阿嫲 and I think I can live with that one because it is Cantonese and uses the right “ma” but its characters are an amalgamation of Cantonese “嫲嫲” and Taiwanese “阿媽”. I’m relieved for the shift because, frankly, 嫲嫲 sounds too much like 媽媽, which is what E calls me.

What to call your wife

I take issue with the informal Cantonese terms that a husband and wife use to refer to each other and that is part of the reason why NPY and I don’t use it. Immaturity also seems to be to blame because in English, I can’t say “my husband” without choking on the second word.

If I were to, I would refer to NPY as my 老公. This translates to “old man”, meanwhile we are familiar with the “man” part of the word (公) as being what we call our maternal grandfathers. NPY isn’t opposed to this term, he thinks it’s cute. It kind of is cute.

If he were to, NPY would refer to me as his 老婆. This translate to, it appears, “old woman”, meanwhile we are familiar with the “woman” part of the word (婆) as being what we call our maternal grandmothers. I am opposed to this term because it doesn’t seem cute. It seems to me like the Chinese language conspired to couch the woman into an irreparably old light. Because men are allowed to grow old while women aren’t. An old doddering 公 is adorable but an old 婆 is often nagging and annoying.

Or I’m just mired in and propagating stereotypes. So we just avoid it entirely for now.

What to call me

Finally, I kept my name, my maiden name. I have no intention to change my surname or hyphenate it. There are several reasons for it, none of which alone hold that much water but altogether, I think I have enough reasons.

  1. The awful look and sound of taking his name or hypenating our names. NPY and I have the usual one-syllable Chinese surnames but neither of us have the popular ones like Chan, Chow, Ho, Lam, Lee, Wong, what have you. Our surnames sound like English words. In my case, it sounds like “lock”, like a padlock. And his sounds like “tongue”. Yay. It took me half a lifetime to embrace my last name so I’m not switching it all of a sudden to a new one to get used to. And if we hyphenate, just look at the phrase it creates, it’s embarrassing! My first name and his last name also doesn’t work but isn’t so bad. However, see Reason #3 below.
  2. The unique British look of my name. I didn’t realize it until I was older but with the misspelling in my surname to a variation that looks Anglo-Saxon in combination with the Welsh origin of my unique first name, my name is British sounding and obscures my ethnicity. You know how some Hong Kongers are, so Anglophile. ;-) And… we live in an age where Asian Last Names Lead to Fewer Job Interviews, Still.
  3. Family issues notwithstanding, I don’t see the need to take the husband’s name. It’s a throwback move that I choose not to follow and (so far) no amount of, “Oh, but your child will not have the same name as you,” will sway me. Your child is your child no matter your names and women have been keeping their name long enough that you don’t blink to see a maiden name and I don’t care and am actually defiant about any paperwork “issues” having a different name causes. Also, my mother reverted to her maiden name and talked plenty enough about it to sway me to do the same.
  4. Finally, I want to keep my name because there aren’t that many of us. My grandmother has three sons but two of them have one child each and my dad has two daughters. My sister will use her married name in some realms and we don’t where all the pieces will fall so I feel like one of the last stalwarts for my name, and that’s okay, isn’t it?

https://www.quora.com/How-is-the-word-grandmother-translated-in-Mandarin (I like the family tree graphic)