Monday, April 5, 2010

Asia, where everyone is your auntie

I'm in Malaysia right now, spending time with my partner's family. And have lost count of the amount of times I have said the words "auntie" and "uncle".

I'm not just talking about people who actually are my aunties and uncles (of which I could claim on a technicality that I have one of each in Malaysia, related to me via the marriage of my cousin). I'm talking about family friends too, but more than that; it refers to virtually anyone who is of an older generation.

So when you're sitting in one of those traditional Malaysian coffee shops invariably run by an  elderly Chinese couple, a request for anything usually begins with some variation of "Excuse me auntie," despite never having met them before. Same with the Malay lady selling kueh by the roadside in SS2, or the Chinese guy who sells tofu fa and soybean milk out of the back of his van in the carpark of Uptown Damansara shopping centre - they are already an "auntie" and "uncle", despite the fact they don't know who the hell I am.

Now I can't claim insight into every Asian culture, but I'm guessing this is pretty common, if not universal, across the continent. Chinese do it. Malaysians do it. Indians and Sri Lankans do it.

Of course, there are limits on who you refer to by these terms. Once you get that high-salaried position at that Fortune 500 company, calling your CEO "uncle" is unlikely to go down as a stellar career move.

And make sure that the person is substantially older than you before you start calling them this. No one likes to be reminded that they are getting old, so thirtysomething women are often less than pleased to be called "auntie" by twentysomethings.

Now if you are reading this and live or grew up in an Asian country this will not be news to you. But it is quite radically different to the norm in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Clearly there is not one single "Western" cultural experience but many, and I can only speak from my own perspectives on growing up in that world. But as a child, I didn't even call my Aussie uncles "uncle". I called them by their names, which is what they seemed to expect. Likewise, if I visited the homes of my childhood friends (who were mostly white at the time), their parents would introduced themselves as John, Peter, Paula and the like, and expected to be called either by their names, or by Mr or Mrs whatever.

(I suspect that calling older relatives by their first names is a particularly Australian thing, since our culture prides itself on being more egalitarian and irreverent than say, the UK or US. Americans seem quite used to calling people Sir or Ma'am, while many Australians are not.)

I always figured calling my friends parents Mr and Mrs was a bit too businesslike, but calling them by their first names was overly familiar. Perhaps its my Indonesian cultural perspective speaking here - Indonesians, like many other Asians, are very status-conscious and would not address an older person by their first name without prefacing it with a respectful signifier of their status.

One thing that almost made my head explode was the high school friend who referred to her PARENTS by their first names. She'd be saying something like, "I was talking to Karin and Peter the other day," which would be fine until I figured that she was talking about her parents. Granted, this is not a common phenomenon in the West, but from an Asian perspective it may as well have been invented by aliens.

If you are an Indonesian, the terms for uncle and auntie (Oom and Tante, originally from Dutch) are used frequently, and tend to precede a relative's first name when referring to them. So I refer to my uncle Basuki Gunawan as Oom Bas, or just Oom. However, when referring to someone unconnected to the family/friend network, we use the terms Bapak (often shortened to Pak) and Ibu (Bu). While these are in some ways equivalent to Mr and Mrs, their primary meaning is father and mother. So while I could refer to my father as Pak, I would also same term for the older man serving me in a shop, for example.

This can occasionally lead to confusion. And Indonesian friend of mine, visiting Australia, elicited his share of bewildered looks when he greeted any older woman with "Hello, mother."

For when you live in a multicultural society, or you are a mixed-heritage person like myself (and  therefore inherently multicultural), you will occasionally find yourself trying to negotiate different worlds and cultural norms, and sometimes getting confused. The first time I heard someone use the term "auntie" for someone they barely knew was around the time I first started hanging around with more and more Asians. And it through me. Although I certainly was used to using the Indonesian terms Oom and Tante for relatives and the parents of Indonesian friends, I hadn't figured that in the English-speaking Asian world, "uncle" and "auntie" were used in much the same way.

So when my Vietnamese friend, who had just met my mother only minutes beforehand, said to her "Bye Auntie", my first reaction was incredulous. She's not your auntie, I thought; what the hell's wrong with you?

But upon later reflection I realised it wasn't so unusual. Besides, if New Zealanders can refer to just about everyone as "bro"or "cuz", then what's the difference, really?


  1. Nice post. I remember the look on my (Anglo-Australian) parents' faces when my Singaporean friends first addressed them as "auntie" and "uncle": equal parts surprise and delight, I seem to recall.

    I found it quite endearing myself. Although I fear I might be getting old enough to have the title applied to myself; not sure how I'd feel about that.

  2. This is common in indigenous Australian communities too; elders are called Auntie [first name] or Uncle [first name].
    Even though I am a white Aussie, I grew up calling my mum's close adult friends Auntie [first name] or Uncle [first name], I think it was common in her church because there was a large percentage of various Asian (mainly Chinese & Malaysian) people in the congregation.

  3. Filipinos do the same thing. We call someone a 'tita' (aunt) or 'tito (uncle) even if we're not related. The same thing applies with calling a person 'kuya' (older brother/older man) or 'ate' (older sister/older woman) or a 'lolo' (grandfather/elderly man) and 'lola' (grandmother/elderly woman woman). It's a sign of respect.

  4. What a great blog post! Very well written and informative. Put a big smile on my dial