NEAR dusk, my neighbour – a grandmother – was doing some light exercise in the open. She was walking briskly around the sculpture of Ding Yi, a prominent Chinese artist, outside our apartment units.
When we saw each other, we smiled and shared greetings: “Ni hao.”
“My surname is Zhang,” she said after I had introduced myself.
“Shall I address you as po po (a respectful designation for an elder among the Cantonese in Malaysia)?” I asked.
She did not protest but I could see she looked a little bewildered.
A week later, as I was having dinner with my local friend and another Malaysian friend, the local told us her gong gong (grandfather) and po po (grandmother) were visiting and would be staying with her for a few days.
“I don’t know what to say to them,” she said.
I was very puzzled as to why such a chatterbox like her did not have much to say to her grandparents.
“Her parents-in-law are visiting,” explained my Malaysian friend.
Only then did it dawn on me that the locals address their father-in-law as gong gong and mother-in-law as po po.
In Cantonese, or at least among my family, my mother addressed her late father-in-law (my late grandfather) as low yeh (or lao ye in Mandarin) and mother-in-law as lai lai (or nai nai in Mandarin).
After checking with the locals, I learnt that the northern Chinese women address their father-in-law as gong gong and mother-in-law as po po.
According to the Yahoo online dictionary, po po refers to the mother of one’s husband but, informally, it can be used to address someone as grandmother or as a respectful designation for an elder, but I reckon it would only be used as such in certain dialects.
And it is the formal way to address maternal grandfather and grandmother as wai gong and wai po respectively.
In Malaysia, a xiao jie just means a Miss, like Zhang xiao jie means Miss Zhang, or a young lady.
But it’s not the case in China.
Many Malaysian men have learnt to address the ladies, young or old, as nu shi (similar to Madam) to show respect.
If you call a waitress xiao jie, you may offend her. However, it is all right to address a young lady working in an organisation or a company as xiao jie.
More often than not, you will hear people address young ladies working in a restaurant or hair salons as xiao mei (similar to little sister).
In China, xiao jie is not just a Miss or a young lady because it is also an occupation, but it’s not something you are proud of!