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!. 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. 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?