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Take a look at this family tree (Picture 1)

How do you call the person represented by the shadowed circle? Cousin, right? That’s pretty obvious! How do Chinese people call it? Well, we can’t tell until we get some more information.

Now take a look at the family tree again (Picture 2), this time, we added something:

So now we can translate the word cousin to 表姐 (Biao Jie,) which means “your older female cousin from your mom’s family”. That’s a lot of information in one word! In some regional cultures in China, you can even tell if your cousin is married and if her parents are older than your parents, from one single word. That sounds a little bit crazy, right?

Fortunately, you are not the only one who thinks like this. As a Chinese student describes, “When I was a child, my parents would take me to my relative’s house, and I have to remember all the specific words for those relationships, such as ‘your grandma on your father’s side’s second daughter’s husband.’ I have to let my parents remind me of those words every single time.” So, you might be asking, “What’s the point”? Well, in Chinese culture, people put their families in a very high priority in their lives. Family hierarchy determines how a person should be treated. For example, depending on your family background, it is usually rude to call your older relatives by their names. So you won’t be hearing Chinese people say things like “Uncle Dave,” or “Aunt Megan” a lot in a family setting. Instead, they will use the specific words we mentioned above. Family hierarchy is such a big topic in Chinese culture, and this is just a “foretaste” of the whole thing. We’ll cover more on this topic in the future.

Here are some takeaway points: 1) If a Chinese friend visits your family. Don’t feel awkward if he or she refuses to call your parents by their names. It’s a way of showing respect. 2) If you visit China someday, try to meet some local families, and watch how the family hierarchy works (and they will treat you with delicious food, too.) 3) Talk to Chinese students about their families, and see how they are different from yours.
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