Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Addressing families : France vs Malaysia

My MIL once commented that she found it horrible that I have to address my sisters by the birth order in my family. France has a long history of fighting against hierarchy in the society, she couldn't understand why we are doing this in families.

Well, I have more than one sister, so I call the eldest one "big sister", the second eldest "second sister", the third eldest "third sister" and so on. This also applies to brothers, uncles, aunties and cousins, so I have people to whom I call big uncle, small aunt (the youngest aunt), third cousin... And since in Mandarin we have distinctive words for people older or younger than you, people from parental side or maternal side,  it is easy to know the relation between two people, if they are related by blood / marriage.

In France, just like in Asia, people address parents and grandparents by their title , but for everyone else in the family they simply call them by first name or last name. It used to be very confusing for me, as when a friend introduced me to, say a cousin, I didn't know if this cousin is from the parental or maternal side, or if he is older or younger compared to my friend. And, it took me some times to accept calling my parents in law by their first name, which in my culture is considered very rude.

There is also a practice that surprises hubby and my MIL : the first thing we say when we meet someone. In France, it would start with a bonjour or salut. In my family, the younger generation has to call out to the elder generation by their "title". For example when I go to my sister's house, my nieces and nephews have to call me "bei yi" (last aunt in Hokkien). And I have to call out to my sister and my brother in laws because they are older than me. Well, how about hubby? He gets to have special treatment as everyone calls him by his first name, else he would be called "bei yi tiung" (last aunt's husband in Hokkien).

When I was a kid, whenever we went to visit someone, my mother would make sure that I addressed everyone in the house (aunt or uncle if not blood/marriage related) before I was allowed to go. Naturally, I try to train Aelig to do the same. But I forgot that in France they don't practice the same things! When Aelig went to visit my office for the first time, I introduced one of my coworkers to her by saying : this is tonton M (uncle M). This coworker immediately laughed hearing me addressing him as tonton (uncle in French). Later he told me that only his siblings kids would call him tonton in France. You just don't go out and call everyone older than you tonton or tata (aunt in French). I was very embarrassed.

Back to my MIL's comment. I was surprised on how she feels about it. I actually love the way I call my sisters very much. Example, let's say my sister's name is Marie, and I tell people that I went shopping with Marie, this could be any Marie, nothing so special. But if I say I go out with my big sister, that's special, because in the whole wide world, I have only one big sister. Besides, elder sisters would usually take good care of their younger sisters.

From my observation, France has its unique practice as well in addressing family members. It goes back to the confusing vous (polite form of you) vs tu (informal form of you). When I asked my French professor how should I address my MIL, she said she would never use "tu" as it is impolite. When I arrived in France, my MIL was disappointed when I use "tu" with her as she thought that I wanted to keep distance between us. So now I use "tu" with everyone in the family, including the grandmothers, to show that I want to be close to them. And then I notice a weird phenomena : everyone in the family would use "tu" with each other except the son in laws. The son in laws use "vous" when calling their MIL. Are they trying to keep distance? How about the neighbors? I feel so close to them so I use "tu" with them but everyone in my French family use "vous" with them. That's something hubby couldn't really explain, just like I couldn't explain to him why Chinese bothered themselves with so many kinship terms to address different family members.

For those who are interested, you can watch a Youtube video about Chinese Family Tree here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCFRoILS1jY#sthash.MWjZMX6E.dpuf
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCFRoILS1jY#sthash.MWjZMX6E.dpuf
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCFRoILS1jY#sthash.MWjZMX6E.dpuf

15 comments:

  1. I like the Chinese way, 姐姐、妹妹、哥哥、弟弟、等等。And really, this "tu" and "vous" thing is strange when you think of it. I love using "you" in English, less headache!

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    1. Well Chinese has the "tu" and "vous" version too but I feel that it is less complicated to use.

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  2. Cambodians too have similar habbits, aunts and uncles for my parent's friends and hierarchy is important. And I should be careful with their age. Last time I visited Cambodia, I met my uncle and aunt for the first time. I said "younger aunt" instead of "older aunt", because she married my uncle who is older than my mom. She must be 12 years younger than my uncle....confusion and shame. With my in laws, I use "vous". It's too late to say "tu". My parents would expect the same from my husband. Between my sister and me, since we speak to each other in French only, we never call each other by hierarchy.

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    1. Are you close to your in laws or you keep some distance?

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    2. They never told be I can use "tu", so I never did. We were closed. In Canada, we use "tu" all the time. It is rare to vouvoyer.

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  3. F got rather confused while attending my cousin's wedding last week because there were so many people to be addressed differently. He just mostly smiled and nodded, which most people couldn't pronounce his name either. It was kind of funny.

    I noticed the use of "vous" with in-laws but frankly I don't pay too much attention to it. I plead (silently) my foreign-ness for the mixed up, and I don't think anyone is offended with my transgression. ;)

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    1. The use of "vous" or "tu" could be quite sensitive in certain family.

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  4. I must say, I like this way more than the French way. At least you don't have to figure out who tutoie and who to vouvoie. I am so embarrassed when I meet someone for the first time, I vouvoie them and them my husband tutoies them. It is so awkward! I can't go back on my decision to vouvoie them so I have to put up hearing my husband tutoie them all evening and hope that I don't mess up and accidently tutoie them. It is so frustrating! The English way is so much easier, or the Malaysian way, where everyone has "a title".

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    1. Why don't you switch to "tu" in this case? Some people would tell you to use "tu" since your husband is using "tu". Well, for the Malaysian way, you need to first memorize all the titles available out there :-).

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  6. Actually I don't like to be called aunty by children here but have to put up with it.

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    1. What would you prefer them to call you?

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  7. do you have a different title for grandma on father side and grandma on mother side ?
    I think the chines way of adressing family member easier for a stranger (especialy for me who is bad with name (got me a year to learn the name of my classmate in ingenieer school)) to understand when someone tell a story

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    1. Yes there are several ways of calling them depending which part of China you are coming from. In my family we use:
      Paternal grandfather = 阿公 (ah gong)
      Paternal grandmother = 阿嬷 (ah mah)
      Maternal grandfather = 外公 (wai gong)
      Maternal grandmother = 外婆 (wai po)

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  8. over here there are polite and informal way of adressing `you` too. So seinz ...

    BTW, after signing on the dotted line, I asked MIL how shall I address her because I could not be calling her Mrs. W and I felt so rude to call her 1st name. She told me called her mama. So, I called her mama lo ..

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