4 Words for Family Relations that Can Get You in Trouble

Have you ever been confused by all the Chinese terms to address your relatives? When I draw a big family tree with the terms for my students, I feel both guilt and security in my career. Either way, let’s look at some "fun" uses of family terms in Chinese.

1. Aunt Flo (大姨妈 dàyímā)


If a Chinese girl has ever refused an offer of a cold drink, stood her date up, or tried to exclude herself from any extreme sport by saying that “my 大姨妈dàyímā is here”, don’t be fooled. Literally “大姨妈 (dàyímā)” is how you call your mother’s eldest sister, but Chinese girls commonly use it to refer to their periods. I don’t remember where I first heard about it,  but I’ve been using it since forever. 大姨妈 does have an origin story though. There was a girl raised by her eldest auntie. The auntie was so strict with this girl that she never had a chance to be intimate with her fiancé. Unfortunately, on their wedding night she had her period. Since she was too shy to tell the groom the truth, she just used her auntie as an excuse for not being able to have sex with him. Since then, “大姨妈 dàyímā” became a common expression. 

2. Penis (小弟弟 xiǎodìdi)

Not Pictured - 小弟弟

Not Pictured - 小弟弟

I actually couldn't find the origin for using “little brother” as a cute or intimate way to mean penis. But recently, 小弟弟 has become a double entendre that could either mean an actual little brother, or a penis. When one of our homestay students told us that his evening plan was to go home and teach his “小弟弟 xiǎodìdi” English, we just couldn’t help laughing. Imagine the reaction when you tell Chinese people you’re going home to play with your“小弟弟xiǎodìdi”! Hahaha!

3. Sugar Daddy (干爹 gāndiē)

Once a student wanted to ask his Chinese friend how to say sugar daddy in Chinese. He tried very hard to explain to him what sugar daddy meant and he ended up with his own word, “糖爸爸tángbàba” (literally sugar daddy). The Chinese version of sugar daddy, is “干爹gāndiē”. 干爹 usually translates to godfather, is a very typical Chinese folk practice for good luck and maintaining connections. 

Not the right kind of 干爹

I myself have three 干爹. The first one is my uncle from my mother’s side. I got this 干爹 when I was born because people in my village believe that babies with an uncle as 干爹 will be blessed. The second 干爹 came to my home to ask me to be his “干女儿gānnǚér”(goddaughter) when I was seven. The reason was that a fortuneteller told him to cure his disease, he needed a goddaughter who was born in the year ofthe rabbit and whose family grew leeks, to help him cure a disease. The third one is my parents’ friend they want to feel more connected to. My three 干爹 are not sugar daddies though!

People started using 干爹 to mean sugar daddy because of a popular tweet by a Chinese model in 2012. She posted a tweet about her 干爹 celebrating her birthday. Later on, netizens found out she had an affair and started using 干爹 to mean sugar daddy.

4. Cleaning Lady (阿姨 āyí)

When you see a cute baby and want to say hi, his or her mother or babysitter usually tell the baby to “say hi to 阿姨”. Most girls prefer to be called “姐姐jiějie”(elder sister),  though. 阿姨 is generally used to address a woman who is your mother’s age. However 阿姨 is also commonly used as a term for a cleaning lady too. So when someone talks about 阿姨 with you,  you always need to be sure about what they mean. 

Maria writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese and Chinese language. She completed her MA atBeijing Foreign Studies University and has over 6 years experience teaching Mandarin. She founded GoEast together with Wang Rong in 2010.