motherhood, parenting

Auntie. Uncle. Mister. Misses. Or, Aisha?

I’ll never forget the first time someone called me auntie. I was 24. She was 12. I was horrified. Auntie, in my opinion, should be reserved for people old enough to be your mother, and unless she came from a very dysfunctional world I was decidedly not an auntie thank you very much.

I’ll also never forget the first time someone of diminutive size called me Aisha. A toddler, grinning, waving, calling out Hey Aisha! I about nearly staggered mid-step.

A language is devised from its people, their cultures, and resulting values. There are hundreds of words for snow amongst the Sami [it be cold there]. Desis, perhaps due to our traditional collectivist nature, have an insane amount of words to define our relationships. No relative is called auntie/uncle, its mami [mom’s bro’s wife], khala [mom’s sis], mamu [mom’s bro], chacha [dad’s bro] and so on. Auntie and Uncle represent the bare bones of respect. Every random desi, stranger and alike, is auntie and uncle if they’re our elders. Random desi guy grunting wordlessly as he hands me my satchel of groceries? Uncle. Desi lady I’ve never seen before in my life confused about what exit on the subway to take? Auntie.

All this to say that the terms auntie and uncle are tattoed into our brains. Which leads to interesting encounters with decidedly non-desi neighbors who pass by, coo at the baby, and to whom we automatically respond say hi to Uncle ‘Bob’ Waleed!.Β  It happens quite a bit, with Auntie Rachel, Uncle Steve and the like slipping out of our mouths before we can recalculate for a different culture. Which, with good friends, its one thing, Auntie Cylinda, Yen, or Rebecca works perhaps, but random people? I can’t help but wonder if they think we’re major weirdos who fancy them like family when we don’t even know their last names and leads them to pity us for we must be very lonely, friendless souls.

Regardless of cultural norms, calling an elder by their first name, feels wrong. So the plan of the hour? Mister/Mrs/Miss for non-desis, and the traditional auntie/uncle for desis. And hopefully the collateral non-desi “auntie/uncles” along the way will understand. Or invite us to Thanksgiving dinner. Either way.Β  All I can do is balance my worlds as best as I can and impart to my son the fine balance inhabiting two cultures entails.

What about you? How do you plan to have your children address their elders?

17 thoughts on “Auntie. Uncle. Mister. Misses. Or, Aisha?”

  1. In my country, we also address older people, relatives or not, with auntie and uncle. But since we speak a Romance language and are quite francophile, we use tante and a derivative of uncle. We are teaching George (improperly said at this age, but matter of fact, we are) that older people than him are either mr or mrs, if we don't know them too well, or tante and tonton if we are more familiar. It may sound weird, but thankfully, we live in such a melting pot of cultures that nothings seems truly outlandish here. πŸ™‚


  2. I'm a Muslim revert and have a lot of young friends of different nationalities who call me first it was odd because in my non- muslim english world the practise of calling someone Auntie/Uncle did exist in my 70's childhood, but seems to have died out. Even my child's teacher said 'Call me Rob..'to which I replied 'I couldn't possibly…'
    I would definitely cringe at a child using first names, but don't always know a person's surname, so Auntie/Uncle would be so much easier..
    In my husband's country in North Africa, a young, twentysomething man bumped into me in the street and said something which my husband translated as 'Excuse me mother…' I was devastated..didn't think I looked that old..!


  3. I can relate to this completely. We tend to go with Uncle and Auntie but amongst relatives we have 2 languages going on, where we use mamu, khala etc for my family and 'ammi (uncle in Arabic), and khalti (aunt) for my husband's family. This post reminds me of a Thai friend of mine who always went with uncle and auntie for anyone older than her. I think Mr and Mrs is fine too.


  4. Oh yes! This is a great post! My grandparents were very 'old Southern'–their own kids called them Sir & Ma'am. I sort of picked that up at an early age, which non-southern people found hilarious, but which was sort of expected by people who'd been raised a little more formally. And in the west, calling women 'ma'am' shows just a general level of respect. But out here in the east, everyone is 'miss'–even while wearing a wedding ring and hugely pregnant, I don't think I heard a single 'ma'am', though I got 'miss'ed' every day! (which would have been a HUGE insult where I'm from!) The kids in the library always called me 'Miss Susan' or even 'Miss Teacher' which I thought was adorable. And I've certainly been called 'auntie' by the children of friends. But I'm with you, having a young child call me by my first name is just weird!


  5. Anon, glad you can relate1

    lol! Thanks Aunt Cylinda! πŸ˜‰

    Leigh Ann, intersting! Does it disturb you or throw you off when the neighbor's kids call you by your first names?

    Ash, lol, yes! Exactly!!!


  6. Kmina, that sounds nice that people don't even bat an eye there! In fairness no one has SAID anything, or even given us a confused look, but I just still cringe, lol. The words you have are beautiful for addressing those close to you!

    June, welcome to the blog and thanks for your perspective it was interesting to read as I didn't know that auntie uncle was ever a practice at all in Western culture! And as for mother, ,maybe he thought you were a mother of children?? LOL I'd be mortified too!

    Fruitful, I wonder how confusing it might be for kids to have a whole different set of addressing protocol for two different cultures, lol, but I think kids adapt very quickly to these things. And here I thought I had it tough, lol. Thanks for the perspective of how much more complicated it can get.

    Susan, thank you. You just clarified a lifetime of confusion. In Michigan, everyone called me Miss. And I was 22 so I didn't bat an eye. Then when we moved to the South- everyone called me m'aam and I was completely flabbergasted and a little hurt because how I was a maam in my early twenties??? Anyways, I grew to just accept that this is what was done regardless of age, just to make myself feel beter, but it appears, it might be true? Huh. Thanks for the perspective!


  7. When my son started school (Montessori) the teachers all went by their first names, and thus so did we parents. However, as we moved into more traditional classrooms, and with our daughter, it was more Mr. and Mrs… some parents preferred it one way, others another. I always deferred to the friend's parents/adult — whatever they were more comfortable with, I let my children do. (I should add, they were/are ALWAYS polite–required!) Same with their friends — whatever they were comfortable calling my husband and me was fine. One friend of my daughter's always calls me Mrs. J…. almost a sweet term of endearment within her conservative naming conventions! Almost like Auntie, which by the way, even though I'm not desi, I would BE HONORED to be called by any child. xo to Waleed from Auntie Julia!


  8. My nephew calls me Ayesha and phupo and I just love the fact that I exist for him so anything works. My female friends' (desis as well as non desis) kids call me khala since I wanted it so desparately and I kinda sorta asked for it. Ummm, I can totally relate to what you are saying except with every passing day I find it hard to call even desi elders uncle and auntie. Just not used to it anymore…


  9. [Auntie]Julia πŸ˜‰ thanks for sharing your perspective on this! I think you're right, whatever each person feels comfortable with. I don't mind or correct when kids call me Aisha, though I find it a strange thing to hear since its outside of my paradigm, but I would never correct- waleed though will do the miss/mister/auntie/uncle I thnk!

    Ayesha, thanks for sharing your point of view. I too am Khala to most of my friends kids as well! You said auntie/uncle is uncomfortable with each passing day, how do you refer to elders now?


  10. LOL – Funny cultural difference. I wish we had more words in English to describe family.

    As for how the kids address elders – What we did when we were little for neighbors and such, was to add Mr./Mrs. with their first name. So “Mrs. Connie” was our friends' mother down the street.

    Now our boys call our neighbors “Mr. Larry” or “Mrs. Judy.” … The neighbors seem to like it. When they give birthday cards, that's how they now sign their names πŸ™‚


  11. Ummm… when its a desi elder, I kinda force myself to use uncle, auntie or I just try to use “aap”. Otherwise, I just take peoples' first names or call them sir/ madam.


  12. I grew up in a foreign country. To form a sense of extended family, all of us kids called each others' parents “Aunt” and “Uncle.” When I came back to the States, it seemed so disrespectful to call adults by their first name! I still default to Mrs./Mr. when in doubt. πŸ™‚


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