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This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

A name always tells a story. It can describe the past and the future that our parents envisioned for us. Parents might choose a name that reveals their family origins, values, interests, or aspirations. In my case, my parents named me Melody, reflecting my mom’s love for music and singing. I was also given a Chinese name—慕恩, pronounced “mo YUN”—bestowed by my paternal grandma, meaning “a desire for grace.” Most people call me Mel, a nickname I prefer for its informality and approachability. These days, the name I hear most is Mom. Whenever I talk to my maternal grandma, however, she doesn’t use any of these names. To her, I am Mui Mui (younger sister), a name automatically given at birth, simply because I came two years after my sister.

Even after developing identities beyond being the little sister, I still counted on my grandparents to call me Mui Mui. But now that three of my grandparents have passed away and my sole remaining grandma lives 750 miles away, this name is one I rarely hear. Being called Mui Mui evokes nostalgia for family potlucks, a cacophony of Chinglish, and entryways cluttered with shoes upon shoes. As I’m raising my own children without an extended Chinese community, I often wonder: How will my kids learn what it means to be Chinese American when they aren’t growing up with the language, sounds, smells, and traditions of their heritage? How can I replicate that without the knowledge and presence of multiple generations?

The author’s maternal aunts, uncles, and grandparents

Mui Mui—and other such names describing birth order—comes from the Chinese kinship system, developed thousands of years ago to distinguish relationships between relatives. The dizzying list of kinship terms designates gender, lineage, and generation, specifying names for everyone from your dad’s second eldest sister to the husband of your spouse’s paternal cousin. In a patriarchal and hierarchical culture, this system was designed to trace ancestry on the father’s side, with the expectation that a son’s duty was to honor and care for his parents, and produce heirs to carry on the family name. Daughters, on the other hand, were expected to marry into their husbands’ families and fade from the family line. 

Confucious, whose teachings shaped the foundation of Chinese culture and beliefs, emphasized that to maintain social discipline and to keep people in their proper place, a family must adhere to a hierarchical structure and conduct themselves according to their status. Practically speaking, this meant knowing your place in the family and using the proper titles when addressing others. Kinship terms for the older generation convey authority and respect, while terms for the younger family members denote inferiority and obedience.

Respecting elders is an honorable virtue, but I bristle at the emphasis on keeping people in their “proper place,” which amplifies the patriarchal nature of Chinese culture. Though this Confucian belief can be construed as sexist in our modern era, I use the kinship terms to honor the collectivist nature of Chinese culture. The emphasis on family is reflected in the language, solidifying our relationship to one another rather than the individuality seen in many other cultures. My sister did not become Jeh Jeh (older sister) until I was born, and I would not be Mui Mui without her.

The author’s paternal family, from her cousins to her great-grandmother

My parents immigrated as teenagers from Hong Kong to the U.S., where they created a home that blended their Chinese roots, conservative Christian values, and growing influences from the surrounding dominant culture. They didn’t send us to Chinese school or insist that we speak Cantonese at home. My dad was a graphic artist and my mom was a teacher, which meant that my sister and I were never pressured to be doctors or lawyers. I was and still am grateful for the freedom my parents gave us to form our own cultural identities, but now, faced with passing my heritage to my kids, I wish I was better equipped for the task. 

Early in my childhood, my sister and I used the kinship terms with my uncles and aunts, acknowledging our relatives’ birth orders in relation to my parents. Over time, we began speaking more English at home and eventually swapped out the kinship terms for “Uncle and Auntie So-and-So.” However, those brief years of using the kinship titles was instrumental to my foundational knowledge and experience of Chinese tradition. When I had kids, I started using the kinship terms with them. My heart melted every time I heard my daughter adoringly call her brother “Goh Goh” (older brother). Today, the kids call each other by their given English names, though I still try to use the Chinese kinship terms. 

The author’s son and Po Po blow out birthday candles together.

Sometimes it feels unnatural, being the only one in my household to use these names. I feel like I’m grasping so tightly to something that was never truly in my hand. But if this is one of the few ways that Chinese tradition appears in my home, I will continue trying. Some days, I grieve the loss of culture that my kids are experiencing. But I am encouraged by my new understanding of culture, that it is ever-evolving, flexing to fit the intricacies of each individual family and generation. My kids’ circumstances and family make-up differ from my own, so it’s inevitable that their understanding and experience of being Chinese American will not mirror mine. And that is okay. 

Later this year, my grandma—or Po Po, as I call her—will turn 93. She still lives on her own, has a morning routine of prayer, gentle stretches, and light gardening, but I know she will not be around forever. Once she passes away, I’ll never again be greeted as Mui Mui. But that doesn’t mean that Mui Mui will no longer be part of my identity. That name and the kinship terms for my extended family—whether used or not—embraces me in something larger than myself. And maybe one day, if my children become parents, they may draw on a faded memory of these terms and begin their own journey of rediscovering their place in our family’s heritage.

Photo credits: Melody Ip

Author

  • Melody Ip is the managing editor for Mochi magazine and a freelance copy editor/writer when she's not singing along to movie soundtracks with her three kids. She loves the trees and rain of the Pacific Northwest, still sends handwritten letters, and always has at least five books on her nightstand.

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