A Tale of Three Sisters: Honorifics and Their Impact on Relationship Dynamics

Before I begin my story, I’d like to give you some background information on how honorific titles work in my culture. I’m a Chinese Malaysian, born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – I’m mentioning this because what applies here wouldn’t necessarily be the case for people living in China or other Chinese diaspora around the world.

My parents were among the more conservative Chinese Malaysians who were fiercely passionate about preserving their cultural heritage. Traditions and customs were passed down and observed dutifully – this includes waiting for the eldest person at the table to lift their chopsticks before you reach for yours, and addressing people older than you by honorific titles instead of their first names.

This applies not only to your elders, but also to your siblings and cousins, even if they are only older than you by a few months, or in the cases of twins, minutes. Guys are called ‘哥哥’ (ge ge), and girls are called ‘姐姐’ (jie jie), which translate into ‘older brother’ and ‘older sister’ respectively.

The Koreans have a very similar system, except theirs is applied not only to family members but to close friends as well.

I speak Mandarin Chinese, English and Korean. I try not to mix them too much and keep them separate as best as I can. When I’m speaking Mandarin Chinese, I make sure to observe the customs and norms of the Chinese culture. When I’m speaking English, I try to behave in accordance with what I perceive to be western values.

I believe that’s what most multilingual people do, especially when confronted with cultural differences they find difficult to reconcile. But what happens when you have to speak more than one language with the same person? Do you alternate between two sets of values, or do you try to stick to one?

Jenny, the Big Sister

Jenny is Korean, and she’s the first language exchange partner I’ve ever had. She is about 7 years older than me, and we got along very well. She told me right away to call her 언니 (Unni), which means ‘older sister’, and I think that paved the way for the sisterly relationship that we ended up having. She was like a big sister to me, and I a little sister to her. We bonded very quickly over our common interests and became great friends.

But since we were language exchange partners, we had to constantly alternate between English and Korean. And I struggled a lot… With English. Even though I was pretty fluent in it. There was just something ‘off’ about the way I was talking, and my sentences felt awkward and unnatural. It was like the constant switching between the two languages was messing with mind somehow. It was a strange experience – disorienting, almost. There were moments where I felt as if I’d completely forgotten how to speak English.

Let me explain.

I had come to see Jamie as a big sister – a  ‘姐姐’ (jie jie), an 언니 (Unni), and in both my native culture and the Korean culture, people are expected to talk to their ‘big sisters’ in a certain way. Our languages demand a certain level of deference that is hard to replicate with the English language.

I think what happened was this: I kept trying to maintain the same level of ‘politeness’ even when I was speaking to her in English, which was pretty much impossible, and I came off sounding really stiff and unnatural because of it.

I couldn’t bring myself to address her by her English name, either. It felt wrong to call my ‘big sister’ by her first name and I was never able to get past that, so when we were speaking in English I made sure to avoid addressing her directly. I’m not sure if she noticed it, but we never talked about it.  

June, the Friend

Like Jenny, June is Korean. We met 2 years ago on italki, and have been language exchange partners ever since. She’s nearly 20 years older than me – just the right age to be a ‘big sister’ to me, yet our friendship, I feel, is more similar to that of two people who are around the same age.

This might sound really normal to some people, especially people who grew up in cultures where age and seniority don’t matter as much. I tend to get along better with people who are a lot older than me, so I have had a lot of friends whom I had to address as ‘姐姐’ (jie jie). They have the tendency to ‘baby’ me a little every now and then when they remember how much younger I am compared to them. I think they feel compelled to ‘look after’ me because of the age gap, since that’s what big sisters do.

It makes me feel loved, of course, and I adore them, but I never feel like I’m their equal. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it is what it is. As close as we are, there are things I can never say to them, things I would have no trouble saying to close friends who are around my age.

So how did June and I end up where we are? A number of things, in my opinions, contributed to this. When we first met, June addressed me as Heather-ssi, which was appropriate since we were both adults who didn’t know each other very well. This put us on a somewhat equal footing.

And as we got closer, we started using English a lot more than Korean in our conversations. I think that set the tone for all of our interactions. With English, we could chat freely without thinking about the age gap. Eventually, we came to form a friendship where we saw each other as equals.

You might be wondering – how do I address her when we’re actually speaking in Korean? As was the case with Jenny, it’s a little complicated, so I tend to avoid it if I can. It’s simple for her, since she’s the older one – she can just call me by my first name. For me, however, I often find myself faced with a bit of a dilemma – June-ssi feels a bit cold and distant, and 언니 (Unni) feels a little strange – not in a bad way, of course, only as strange as you would feel about having to call a close friend your age ‘big sister’.  

Fortunately for me, Koreans have the habit of omitting the subject in their sentences. It makes things a lot simpler.

Janis, the Cousin

Janis is my cousin. She’s barely a year older than me, and her house was a fifteen-minute drive away from mine, so we spent a lot of time playing together as children. I grew up calling her ‘姐姐’ (jie jie) – Janis 姐姐, actually, since she’s my cousin and not my actual sister.

We were close up until high school. We became very busy with our studies then, and since we went to different schools, we barely saw each other. By the time we started attending college, we had drifted apart completely. We went from begging my parents to let me stay over every time we visited to struggling with small talks at family gatherings.

And all of a sudden calling her ‘姐姐’ (jie jie) felt weird.  Let me explain why.

Firstly, the age difference is so small it’s practically negligible. I’m positive age difference has something to do with this because I have no trouble doing this when it comes to her older sister, who’s about 15 years older than me and whom I was never close to. I mentioned earlier that for us, we don’t really use these honorific titles with friends, unless they’re like 15-20 years older than us, and even then some people don’t use it. But one thing is certain – we don’t use it with peers.

And that’s what Janis felt like to me, after falling out of touch for several years – an old, distant friend that I don’t really talk to anymore. She’s lost her ‘big sister’ status somewhere along the way, but customs dictate that I must continue to address her as one.

It’s like calling a classmate your ‘big sister’. It’s awkward. But calling her by her first name is out of the question, of course. I can picture my mom and my aunts gasping in dismay at the mere notion of it – that’s how rude it is.

The funny thing is, I have no problem addressing her as ‘Janis 姐姐’, so as long as I’m not talking directly to her. She could be sitting right next to me while I say it and I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable at all. For example, if Janis, my sister and I are all eating together at the same table, I would have no trouble with saying, “Jen, would you pass the salt to Janis 姐姐?”

So what happens when I absolutely HAVE to do it? What if I have to yell across a room to get her attention? How do I do that?

Good question. I can’t. I’ll have to make my way to the other side of the room, tap on her shoulder and then say whatever it is I have to say. I’m not kidding.

Ellie, another cousin of mine, seems to be having the same problem. She’s a year younger than me, and I honestly cannot remember the last time she called me ‘姐姐’ (jie jie). When we do run into each other at family gatherings, our conversations usually start like this:

“Hey, Ellie!” I would say.

“Hey.”

Yup, not even a name. Just ‘hey’. But I don’t blame her, really. It’s probably better that way.