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How to Address Anyone You Meet in China

JINNA WANG

When I was studying in China, one of the questions I received most often from my American classmates is: “What do I call [insert person here]?” As I listened to their dilemma, I realized the root of their problem: the Chinese textbooks they used offered limited dialogue scenarios.  They knew to call the teacher 老师 (lǎo shī), but that’s really not enough to know how to call everyone you meet!


How Chinese people actually address each other is different from what we often learn in Chinese textbooks. In this article, we cover how to address anyone you might meet in China as broken down across a few broad categories. Let’s get started!


1. Young Children/Babies


While it’s not often that you’ll spontaneously meet a baby, you might meet the children of  Chinese friends and colleagues.


What not to call them:


你的孩子 (nǐ de hái zi) - “your child”: While this means “your child,” and there is nothing grammatically wrong with saying “你的孩子 (nǐ de hái zi),” this is simply NOT how Chinese people actually talk! This can instantly give you away as a person who learned Chinese at a school, but without any real-world practice.


If you're taking the Yoyo Chinese Beginner Conversational Course, in Unit 25, Lesson 4, Yangyang covered this when she explained why “你的孩子 (nǐ de hái zi),” isn't the correct way to refer to your own son or daughter:



But of course, you would never call someone else's child your 儿子 (ér zi) - son, or 女儿 (nǚ ér) - daughter, so how do you address someone else's kids?


What to call them instead:


宝宝 (bǎo bao) - “baby”: This is the most popular way to refer to babies in China. (bǎo) literally means “treasure,” and this word connotes how precious the baby is. You can say:

宝宝好可爱!(bǎo bǎo hǎo kě'ài) - “The baby is so cute!”


小朋友 (xiǎo péng you) - “little buddy”: For kids who are slightly older and can talk to you, you can refer to them as “小朋友 (xiǎo péng you) This is a friendly way to refer to a young child.

小朋友,你叫什么名字?(xiǎo péng you nǐ jiào shén me míng zi) - ”Little buddy, what’s your name?”


2. Classmates



Classmates are a relatively straightforward category. If you know their names, feel free to call them by name.

What not to call them:


同学 (tóng xué)“classmate” - Technically, this is not wrong. But it is not very popular either. You would have much better luck with…


What to call them instead:


学长 (xué zhǎng) / 学姐 (xué jiě) - “older male classmate/older female classmate”: These terms are actually used by Chinese students in real life. It shows a level of respect and deference to the seniority of your older classmates.


学弟 (xué dì) / 学妹 (xué mèi) - “younger male classmate/younger female classmate”: Similarly, older classmates can address younger classmates with 学弟 (xué dì) / 学妹 (xué mèi). It creates a sense of familiarity and friendliness.


In a student wechat group, you might see messages like:

请问学长学姐们怎么选课?

(qǐng wèn xué zhǎng xué jiě men zěn me xuǎn kè)

Asking older classmates: "How do I pick classes?"


Or “欢迎学弟学妹们!”

(huān yíng xué dì xué mèi men)

"Welcome younger classmates!"


3. Coworkers/Bosses


The workplace can be a tricky one to navigate.  After all, you can’t really refer to your boss with the same level of familiarity as you would a peer. A general rule of thumb is, many modern workplaces in China make use of English names. If your boss and coworkers tell you to call them by their English names, feel free to do that. If not, keep reading!


What not to call them:


同志 (tóng zhì) - ”comrade”.  This is a VERY old-fashioned term that was popular during the communist era. Almost no one uses it except people in the oldest generation. In recent years, 同志 (tóng zhì) has also become a term to refer to homosexuals. Avoid potential confusion and just stay away from this word.


What to call them instead:


(Boss’s Last Name) + 总 (zǒng) - “executive (last name)”: It sounds strange in English, but this is a very popular way of referring to one’s head boss and other executives. If a person is an executive, or at least a manager, it would be good to use this word.


老板 (lǎo bǎn) - “boss” - This is the generic term for “boss.” It is not as formal as “(Boss’s Last Name) + 总 (zǒng)” but is a popular term that Chinese people use often.


(lǎo) / 小 (xiǎo) + (coworker’s last name) - “old/little+coworker’s last name”: Chinese coworkers often refer to each other in this way, especially in a traditional workplace. “老 (lǎo)” is reserved for those who are older, and 小 (xiǎo) for those who are younger. Just beware that this is a very familiar way to refer to people, and only use it with people who you are well acquainted with. 


You might hear:

小王,你几点开会?

(xiǎo wáng, nǐ jǐ diǎn kāi huì)

"Little Wang, when do you have the meeting?"


When in doubt, you can always check with your coworkers what they want you to call them.


4. People You Meet on the Street

This is a catch all category that covers many different types of people. If you are a foreigner, you get a lot of leeway in getting it wrong. However, it is still better to play it safe, choosing formal over casual.


What not to call them:


美女 (měi nǚ) / 帅哥 (shuài gē) - “beautiful girl/handsome guy”: You might hear these terms a lot when sales people beckon to you, but it is a very casual way to refer to people, and can be mistaken for flirting. My advice is to stay away!


What to call them:


For people who are clearly older than you:


阿姨 (ā yí) / 大叔 (dà shū) - “auntie/uncle”: This is a friendly way to refer to people who are obviously older than you. Just make sure that they look A LOT older, no one wants to be referred to as “auntie” if they think you are the same age! 


You might say:

阿姨,请问图书馆怎么走?

(ā yí, qǐng wèn tú shū guǎn zěn me zǒu)

"Auntie, how do I get to the library?"


For people who are the around same age:

This is a tough one, because there aren’t any great options to call out to people you don’t know. My best advice is to very politely say 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) - “excuse me,” and then ask them for what you need. 


For example:

不好意思, 请问火车站在哪儿?

(bù hǎo yì si, qǐng wèn huǒ chē zhàn zài nǎ er)

"Excuse me, where is the train station?"


For shopkeepers:

老板 (lǎo bǎn) / 师傅 (shī fu) - “boss/master”: We saw the term 老板 (lǎo bǎn) in the office setting above, where is it more casual. But 老板 (lǎo bǎn) is a very formal and respectful way to refer to shopkeepers. If you are eating at a restaurant, the owner would be very happy to be referred to as “老板 (lǎo bǎn).” 师傅 (shī fu) is reserved more for people who work with their hands, who are masters of their craft. If you are at a noodle shop, the person making the noodles can be called “师傅 (shī fu).”


老板,结账!

(lǎo bǎn, jié zhàng)

"Boss, the check please!"


Leave a comment!

After reading this article, hopefully you can feel more like a local when addressing people in Chinese. Just know that, this is tough even for Chinese native speakers! Have you had a situation where you didn’t know what to call someone? Leave a comment below and I will try my best to answer.


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JINNA WANG is a freelance writer and translator living in New York. She grew up in the snowy city of Harbin, and now spends many weekends recreating the northeast Chinese cuisine of her childhood. You can usually find her traveling, eating, and writing about both.

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 07:00:00 GMT

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