The 4th Ayi: Chinese Girls’ Nightmare

22 Jul 2014

We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)

Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.

Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:

1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.

2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.

3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)

But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.

So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.

So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):

4 Ayi

1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
3. Housekeeper Ayi
4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi

If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)
    I think it’s “……for foreigers living in SHANGHAI”
    People tend to use 保姆 or 小时工 in other cities in China.

    • It’s definitely not Shanghai only! I’m not sure of the exact scope, though, I admit…

      Maybe it’s a southern thing? What regions of China do you have experience with?

    • 阿姨 3 is definitely used in the north also (Beijing and Hebei). It’s different from 保姆, which from what I’ve seen also takes on a carer role of sorts, e.g. A 保姆 is someone you’ll hire to look after your elderly parent, whereas an 阿姨 might just come in a couple of days a week to do cleaning and some cooking.

  2. I love kids and I am a female foreigner living in Shanghai.

    Whenever I see a cute little kid when I am out somewhere, I cannot help but say hi and speak to the mother/father in Chinese, ask them how old she/he is, what her/his name is etc. I saw this both as a way to play with kids and practice some Chinese when I first came to China, but then I realized I kind of hated it, since after noticing me smiling to the baby, the mother/father would immediately say 宝贝,跟阿姨说个hi吧,阿姨,你好!At first, I even tried to explain that I am only 20 something and asked them why they would call me 阿姨, out of pure interest in the language (I thought there was something wrong with the dictionary I used!:D)

    Now I just play with the kid and pretend that I cannot speak any Chinese, ignoring all the 阿姨’s they call me!

    • Yeah, a lot of times they only want the kids to speak to the 外国人 in English, too, as if the kids aren’t allowed to communicate with foreigners unless they do it in English. That’s kind of annoying.

      • Aaah second that so much! “说哈罗!说哈罗” Then the bewildered little kid gets their hand moved for them in a little wave.

        I get called 叔叔 by little kids — I prefer that to ‘二哥’, which I get called by my girlfriend’s younger relatives…

  3. You have the exact same phenomenon in Singapore with the word Auntie in English/Singlish.

  4. Interesting…I’ve found that a lot of my early-twenties female friends deliberately refer to themselves as 阿姨 when talking to cute toddlers.

    …then they point at me and blurt out 外国人!:P

  5. Ai-yaa. Yeah, a couple of months ago a little kid called me yeye instead of shushu. It burns, that’s for sure. Kids that small can’t lie. They call it like they see it.

  6. Nothing burns like being called ayi … when you’re a 20 year-old guy.

  7. I (a white male) was once visiting my friend’s family in a somewhat remote farming village in Zhejiang. Upon seeing me, his brother’s little daughter (maybe 2 or 3 years old) had the following reaction: Her eyes got very wide, she pointed at me, and very carefully and clearly asked her father: “那是什么?” ( Nà shi shénme? What is that?).

  8. I found it weird the first time I was called 叔叔, that and when someone outside the service industry used 您.

  9. When I first arrived in China, 2006 or so, little kids and their parents alike called me jiejie, and then quite suddenly about two years ago everyone, as if by general consensus, started calling me ayi. My identity crisis was exactly as you described above!

  10. My son has been doing the same thing and it never occured to me that anyone would take offence at being called Ayi by a two year old. I guess I have heard objections though…. I found it kind of funny that everyone is family to little kids.

  11. To be fair, I hate it when little kids call me 叔叔! (shu shu, uncle). 大哥,好不好!

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