Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mon oncle

I really hate (here we go again!) the Chinese words for familial relationships. My Chinese dictionary has 10 full pages devoted to detailing which precise appellations are appropriate in which precise situations and with which precise relations. Take the following (translated but otherwise unedited) example:

Reltionship: Father’s sister’s son or mother’s sister or brother’s son, older than oneself

Possible names: 表兄、表哥

Notes: 表兄 is rarely used to address people who are present; in general “哥”, “哥哥” and “表哥” are used instead.

But despite this profligate disdain for language economy (I can describe any relationship I want in English with sister, brother, mother, father, aunt, uncle, cousin, and bastard), I have grown fond of one name: 叔叔, shūshū, which means “uncle”. I mean, not all uncles. Only your father’s younger brother. Obviously there are other words for all the other types of uncle, which, as we know, are deeply, essentially different from this first type of uncle.

Shushu, besides being fun to say (try it! Just like the English word “Shoo!”, as if you were shooing your loser uncle away from a bowl of party trail mix), is also a term of respect used primarily by children and young adults to refer to older men (who are generally still younger than their parents). Which is why it’s part of one of my favorite moments from last year: I was on the street, making eyes at a baby I wanted to steal, when the mother raised the baby’s hand and waved at me while cooing, “say ‘Hi, Uncle!’ ‘Hi, Uncle!’” I was that baby’s uncle! I was her 叔叔! I was an older man who was nevertheless younger than her parents! I felt like I did the first time I picked up our home telephone and the person on the other end assumed I was Daniel and not Debra, when I was 17.

My favorite shushu is the one who cleans my house. My shushu (haven’t bothered to learn his name) comes every Tuesday and Friday. He does not attempt to speak to me. Nor in general does he make noise of any kind, except to knock timidly at my door when it’s time to mop my floor.

Naturally this is just how I like it.

I wanted to dedicate at least one post to my 叔叔, and to thank him for providing me a host of silent, submissive services, including but not limited to:

  • Washing the dishes I leave in the sink every Tuesday and Friday (because why do dishes when you know that the Shush is on his way?)
  • Washing the dishes I leave in the sink every Monday and Thursday (because why do dishes when you know that the Shush is on his way tomorrow?)
  • Cleaning the balcony that one time Gus said that he was considering using it as a “reading nook”.
  • Emptying the three trash cans I filled up with vomit during a violent digestive episode earlier this year.
  • Scrubbing out our refrigerator after it was infested by cockroaches.
  • Hosing down our squat toilet.

Thanks, 叔叔! I owe you one! (Probably not going to repay him in any meaningful way, though, unless you count the $13 tip I gave him last Chinese New Year!!!!!)

By the way, I was talking with some students about the baroque system of names for one’s relatives in Chinese, and my students agreed that, yes, it is a little troublesome, but “because of the One Child Policy, in a few generations no one will have brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or cousins any more.”

Ha ha ha ha. Ha ha. Ha ha.

Funny because it’s true.