Column: Adventures in Multicultural Living

Navigating the nuances of names
Frances Wang

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (photo courtesy of Mark Bialek)

“I’m not your ‘Mom!’” my girlfriend finally exploded at her kids.

The teenagers looked puzzled, “Then, whose mom are you?”

I know what she means, though. She does not want her children to call her the English word, “Mom,” but to call her by the Chinese term, “Ma Ma.” The dictionary may give the same meaning for both terms, but “Mom” does not have the same feel, the same nuance, as “Ma Ma.” My children are not allowed to call me “Mom,” either.

The question of how to address people often comes up in our family. I teach my children to always address adults as “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” “Auntie” or “Uncle” – never by their first names. In our local Asian American communities and in Hawaii, it is common to address one’s elders as “Auntie” or “Uncle,” even “Grandma” or “Grandpa.” It creates instant familiarity, instant respect, an instant family-style relationship where adults look out for children and children look up to adults.

However, this is confusing for other children who do not have this custom, who are constantly correcting my children: “She’s not really your aunt, you know.” We feel like such outsiders when this happens, like we are not wanted.

Sometimes this is confusing for adults, too. Recently, I introduced my son, Little Brother, to a friend of mine, “Uncle Joe.” My friend was taken aback, “Uncle?”

“Would you prefer Mr. Grimm?”

“Oh! In that case, ‘Uncle’ would be fine.”

As a child, I always felt very uncomfortable whenever Caucasian adults insisted that I call them by their first name, but I felt even more uncomfortable disobeying the adult. I never knew what to do. As an adult, I feel the same discomfort when Caucasian children call me by my first name, but I know for them it is a sign of familiarity and friendship, so I do not say anything.

However, when a Chinese American boy I know suddenly starts calling me by my first name, I have to stop him: “Look, you can’t call me Frances. It makes me crazy. Call me Kai-Hwa Ah-Yi.”

The boy actually looks relieved. “I didn’t really feel comfortable calling you that, either, but that’s the only name I know for you.”

“Ok, if you have to, you can call me Frances Ah-Yi, but you have to add an Ah-Yi (Auntie) to the end. And not only for me, but for all Ah-Yi‘s.”

I once heard Salman Akhtar, an Indian American psychoanalyst and poet, lecture about how he sometimes encourages patients to say what they need to say in their own language. Even if he does not understand that language, their meaning comes through much clearer than in their stilted English. He went on to say that although the word “Sweetheart” is fine, it simply is not the same as…and then came a string of the most beautiful words (in Urdu) that I have ever heard.

Even though I was simply sitting in the audience, I melted completely. That is the power of using the right name in the right language.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village and a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at She can be reached at


  1. By Ed Thierbach
    April 12, 2009 at 7:47 pm | permalink

    Thank you for a wonderful article. When I was young, American culture was similar to yours in how children addressed adults. We were taught not to address adults by their first name; those who were near and dear to us were “Aunt” or “Uncle”. Very special elderly adults could be Grandma or Grandpa — I had one of those, Grandma Winstrom, who lived just around the corner.

    I, too, always felt awkward when “hipster” parents wanted me to call them by their first names. Mostly, I just avoided using their names at all.

    Once in a great while, the “Mr./Mrs./Miss” custom backfired. When I was a high school senior, my school’s computer teacher helped a couple of us find part time jobs at the University of Maryland. A few years later, she was hired on in the same office. Everyone there was on a first-name basis, but the two of us just could *not* call her anything but “Miss Levin”. After a great deal of ribbing from our co-workers, she finally convinced us to call her “Sheri”.

  2. By Reema
    April 12, 2009 at 8:25 pm | permalink

    I know exactly what you mean, Frances-
    It’s funny. Just today my husband was telling my daughter to stop calling me “Mommy”. It drives him crazy- it’s “Mama”. My girls always call him “Baba”.

    I was also at school the other day as a team of workers came in to rip out old cabinets. I wanted them to help put a couple of the old ones into my car for me. I approached one of the older guys and found out he spoke arabic very quickly. I immediately addressed him as “Amo”, which means uncle. It’s just immediate. That’s how I was raised and it shows respect.

    When parents come into my classroom and want students to address them by their first names, I usually put the Mr./Ms./Mrs. in front of it.

    I make a lot of connections to these articles, Frances. Keep them coming and thanks!

  3. By Athena
    April 12, 2009 at 9:15 pm | permalink

    Dear Frances:
    We Greeks are the same. As a child and teenager, it’s “Thea” (auntie) and “Theo” (uncle) for the parents of your friends and “Yiayia” and “Papou” for their parents followed by thier first names. If it is your actual grandparents you don’t have to say the name, just plain Yiayia and Papou is fine. We add a twist with those that serve as the wedding sponsor: “koumbara” and “koubaro” and then the godparents use another name (even if the godparents are really aunts or uncles): “Nona” and “Nono”. In the end everybody is related to everybody and were all cousins! I understand the feeling of community and respect that you describe. If you see an older man who needs help with a bag or to walk across a busy Athens intersection, he would be addressed as “Papou”. After all, mostly likely he is sombody’s Papou. You honor their years of living and passing down the wisdom and traditions.
    Great topic. I agree, keep them coming and then we’ll all look forward to the collection as your book!

  4. By reggie
    April 13, 2009 at 11:59 am | permalink

    growing up as a filipino american, i always addressed the friends of my parents as, “tito” fill in the blank for the males and, “tita” fill in the blank for the females. it translates into uncle and aunt. i’m enjoying your anecdotes. keep ‘em coming!