Thursday, May 14, 2009

Everybody Is Your Uncle

Bilbo's recent post, "Hi Sweatie!", about waitresses in San Antonio reminded me a lot about what I have been encountering here in Ipoh.

The main language used at the coffee shops is Cantonese. Very often, if you're a youngish looking person, the waitress will ask "What would you like handsome guy/pretty girl?" It looks a little strange as I read this in English but it is so common that it sounds quite "normal" to the ears when I hear it in Cantonese. Actually, I don't think I've heard it in any of the other dialects.

In the past, I have heard customers call out to the waitresses in the same way too, either "handsome guy" or "pretty girl". But I suppose fear of sexual harassment accusations has reached even a little town like Ipoh because I haven't heard it in recent years.

Unfortunately, if you're no longer youngish looking, you get called "aunty" or "uncle". And strangely, they don't use the Cantonese words but say it in English.

And, if you're even older looking, they'll call you "grandmother" or "grandfather". They switch back to Cantonese here.

I think the use of aunty, uncle, grandmother and grandfather stems from the way children are taught to address people older than them but not related to them. Unlike in the West where children are taught to address their friend's parents or perhaps their parent's friends as Mr or Mrs So-and-so, children here are told to call them "uncle and aunty". Anybody that looks about the same age as your parents are addressed this way. And, this doesn't end when you're a 'grownup' - I'm not sure when to stop doing this but I'm still told to do this now.

Similarly, people who look like they are roughly the same age as your grandparents, are addressed as "grandfather/grandmother".

As for the real aunts and uncles, there are specific titles depending on the person being on the maternal or paternal side. And also if the person is older and younger than your parent. For example, I call my father's brother "Ah Chek" and my mother's brother "KauFu".

So far, all this business of calling people "aunty" and "uncle" hasn't been a problem for me. And, I guess I won't have a problem with it until the day that somebody comes up to me and says "What would you like, Aunty?"


John said...

Interesting. I'm sure that our blogging linguist, Bilbo will find it fascinating.

wv: robacutr--automated barber.

Mike said...

In the US it's really a let down the first time some smart aleck kid calls you "sir" or "ma'am" and makes you feel really old.

fiona said...

Interesting post "pretty girl"
Love and hugs
Grandmother xxx

Nap Warden said...

Yeah...was not happy the first time someone threw ma'am at me:P

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It seems a lot friendlier.