…with nine members of the extended family and only one child, five-year-old Zhang Xinyu, who naturally becomes the center of attention. Sing us a song, Zhang Xinyu! Come give your auntie a hug, Zhang Xinyu. Zhang Xinyu, what do you call everyone here? The poor child has to go around the table and recite everyone's kinship to him: What's so-and-so's name, and what do you call him/her (你管他叫什么)? 老姨姥 (maternal grandmother's youngest sister)… 老舅姥爷 (maternal grandmother's youngest brother)… I'm slumped in my chair, worried I'll be tested next – after four years I know the names of almost no one in my wife's family (no one ever uses them!), and still occasionally forget which is aunt number two and which is aunt number three. I call according to my wife's position in the family, which makes things easier, but still I could never compare to the five-year-old Zhang Xinyu. He goes around the table, acing each one except for my mother-in-law, whom he calls 老舅妈 (mother's youngest brother's wife), instead of 老舅姥姥 (maternal grandmother's youngest brother's wife) – he's heard his mother call her that, and gotten his generations wrong. He comes around to me: What's his name? "Eric." What's his Chinese name? "陶建." What do you call him? "小姨父 (mother's female cousin's husband)." And what else do you call him? "美国大个子 (the big American)." Well done, Zhang Xinyu…
…dinner at 老姑 and 老姑父's house (father's youngest sister, plus husband), and we're talking about why 老 (lǎo), which usually means "old", actually refers to the youngest of a group of siblings, while 大 (dà), meaning "big", refers to the eldest. So my father-in-law's four sisters are, from oldest to youngest, 大姑 ('big aunt'), 二姑 ('second aunt'), 三姑 ('third aunt'), and 老姑 ('old aunt'). No one can explain why that should be. My father-in-law adds that you can call the last child in the family 老疙瘩 (sounds like lǎogāda), which in northeast dialect means a little lump of something leftover, something you hadn't planned on, but there it is so you might as well make use of it. Later I am treated to a virtuoso performance by my 老姑父 (father's youngest sister's husband), who is telling my wife a story about something he said to my wife's cousin, and in the space of one sentence refers to himself from two different points of view ("and then your father's-youngest-sister's-husband said to her, 'your mother's-youngest-sister's-husband is telling you the truth…'"), and switches effortlessly between terms for my mother-in-law. This is after a full glass of baijiu and two beers. I am in awe…
Translating kinship terms is a notorious pain, not only because there are no graceful English equivalents for these terms, but because the feeling of kinship is difficult to recreate. My sense is that, in English, calling someone by their name creates a sense of intimacy, while calling them by a kinship title (unless it's "mom" or "dad") sounds stilted. Chinese seems to be the exact opposite – a relative would be offended if you called them by their name, while using the proper kinship term can be deeply satisfying. Being accurate in translation means creating exactly the wrong atmosphere, and English may simply have no access to that sense of closeness and belonging that results from everyone knowing their place.
I'm reminded of an encounter I had a couple of months ago, while I was wandering around southern Beijing. I had squatted down by the side of the road and was looking at a favorite building, when a boy about Zhang Xinyu's age came out of a nearby shop. He was carrying his lunch: a bowl of noodles that looked the size of an oil drum in his arms. He planted himself in front of me, munched complacently for a moment, then said, "叔叔好 (hello, uncle)."
"你好 (hello)", I replied.
He continued munching and thinking, then said, "外国叔叔! (foreign uncle!)"
Now when someone says 你好 you say 你好 back, but when someone calls you by a kinship term and nothing more, you respond with 哎, so that's what I said. The character 哎 by itself doesn't really mean anything, it's just a sound (technically 'I', but I usually hear it as 'hey' without the 'h'). The gist of it is: "I hear you, and the kinship term you've chosen to use for me. I accept what you're calling me, and henceforth we are related on these terms." It can be a very sweet thing, when it's said with feeling, and also very hard to translate.