The value of pronouns; or, ‘Excuse me, Sir?’

Recently, on a flight home to China after a week away, I was mistaken for a man.

Moments before we landed in the southern city Guangzhou, a flight attendant reached over to my chair and pushed the button that made my chair spring upright. It was an awkward moment, in which he assumed that invading my personal space would be easier than communicating, perhaps because I was obviously desperate to finish the movie.

Assuming his English was not strong, I forgave him his trespasses – it’s often hardest to remember necessary phrases in a second language at the moment they require use. Then my brain caught up: what had I heard him say, despite the movie climax? I turned to my boyfriend for reassurance. He was grinning: “Did you hear what he called you?”

I rewound the exchange and my brain processed it; he’d said, “Excuse me, Sir.”

I’d never been addressed as ‘Sir’ before.

It dawned on me that my outward appearance was not decidedly feminine. I was wearing jeans and an oversized hoody belonging to my boyfriend, I didn’t have any makeup on, and my short hair was plastered down on my head.

I’ve never had hair this length before. Until recently, it had always been long – an obvious indication of femininity, even when everything else I wore looked neutral or masculine. Now, apparently, I’d switched sides in one swift haircut.

Admittedly, it had been a pretty drastic haircut – one that I’ve both been praised and criticized for, particularly by unsuspecting students and my very shocked boss. I’d gone from Rapunzel to G.I. Jane in a single June afternoon.

In many cultures, long hair is considered one of the primary things that renders a woman recognisably female. As both a biological by-product and cultural construction, the tie between hair and identity is strong, despite – and perhaps because of – the fact that hair is one of the few impermanent physical features. The social norms surrounding long hair and femininity go fundamentally unchallenged, despite the increasing commonality of women choosing to cut their hair short. (Especially in China, where most middle-aged women seem to have short hair, many young students choose to don a more androgynous hairstyle, and yet the extensive history of long hair being sexualised continues.) Therefore I view the outdated social expectation linking ‘woman’ with ‘long hair’ as a gender stereotype.

Returning to work after the summer months, during which my hair had grown pretty quickly, my boss told me: “Oh, you look like a ten-year-old boy.” This was apparently preferable to the “thug” look I’d been sporting when I left in June, but still lacking in comparison to his notions of “appropriate”, which could describe my appearance when I was hired. I shrugged it off while inwardly floundering, because how could I possibly respond to that?

What a thing to say to your much younger female employee, to whom you should be offering respect as a teacher and coworker. To be clear, there was no cultural misunderstanding: he’s American and I am British. We speak (almost) the same language.

We all know that gender stereotypes pervade society, but it can still be a shock to find this sexist tendency just sitting in the annals of your boss’s psyche when suddenly ‘bam!’ it hits you in the face.

I don’t care whether others think I look pretty. I don’t care whether I look the way people expect. I do, however, have a problem with people projecting their archaic image of what woman means onto me and other strong, independent women. I am offended by the implication that an impermanent change to my appearance makes me any less capable of doing my job.

Many of my female students felt the need to reassure me, “You still look beautiful.” These are young adults reading a BA in English, who with years of study under their belts could not possibly be oversimplifying their comments. Knowing several identify as feminists after an 8-week class unit on women and gender, I was disappointed by their implications of hair as the source of beauty, as this shows a reluctance or inability to question the social norms that surround women and long hair in Chinese culture. Every last one intended that to be a compliment; none of them landed.

What continues to overwhelm me is the extent to which ideas about gender are rooted in language. Now looking back – back past those overzealous students, past the outdated opinions of my boss, to the gendered mistake of the flight attendant – what’s the theme here?

It is all about language.

Despite the similarity of comments across several languages, I couldn’t help but look to the differences between Chinese and English for some answers. Of course, I don’t mean to target any language over the next. Germanic and Latinate languages have two or three genders built into everyday grammar. Both French and Spanish, for example, have speakers around the world referring to feminine tables and masculine cups of coffee.

In English, our most basic pronouns are gendered. But in spoken Chinese, ‘he’ sounds identical to ‘she’: tā. I wondered whether the flight attendant had simply misspoken… so I went further.

English Chinese
he / she
man nánrén
woman nǚrén
boy nánhái(zi) / nánshēng
girl nǚhái(zi) / nǚshēng
sir / mr. xiānshēng
mrs. (madam) tàitài / fūrén
miss xiǎojiě
sir (US) shīfu
lady nǚshì
dude (brethren) gēmen
honey (US) / love (UK) měinǚ
uncle shūshu
aunt āyí
leftover woman shèngnǚ
mankind rénlèi

In Chinese, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are about as different as the words in English but imply more equality: ‘nánrén and ‘nǚrén translate into ‘male person’ and ‘female person’.

Major differences abound in polite forms of address, however, and all are gendered, starting with ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. The formal way to address a man is ‘xiānshēng’, which means ‘Mr.’ or translates as ‘first born’ – a nod to China’s preference for boys. ‘Xiānshēng’ often follows a name, as Mr. would precede a name in English, but can also stand alone.

Some say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.

‘Xiǎojiě’ is sometimes used to address a woman in Chinese. Xiǎojiě directly translates as ‘little sister’ (or ‘small elder sister’) but means ‘miss’ or ‘young (unmarried) woman’. It is also now slang for prostitute, so is a dangerous term to use because it is very easy to cause offence. Another is the word for a married woman, ‘tàitài, which can be used as ‘madam’, ‘mrs’, ‘married woman’, and ‘wife’ – but tàitài isn’t usually used for strangers as it normally follows a name, as Mrs. would precede a name in English. Similarly, fūren is rarely used outside the context of referring to a woman as someone’s wife, as it literally means ‘husband’s person’.

A respectful form of address for any male worker is ‘shīfu’, which is a polite way to say ‘master’ or call someone a ‘qualified worker’, but is used as the way many Americans say ‘sir’. I most regularly hear shīfu used when talking to cab drivers or in reference to the ‘worker’ who comes to fix things around the house – a nod to the gendered nature of manual labour (and creating awkwardness when you don’t know what pronoun to use for a female cab driver). Chinese men will often use the term ‘gēmen’ when talking to other men. Gēmen (‘dude’ or ‘brother/brethren’) reinforces a sense of male solidarity, which pervades Chinese culture.

One that continues to surprise me is ‘měinǚ’, which is used as a synonym for ‘madam’ or ‘miss’, means something close to ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ and is far more common than xiǎojiě, tàitài, or fūrén. Měinǚ (which translates as ‘beautiful woman’) is the go-to pronoun for a woman you don’t know, particularly if you want to avoid offense regarding age. The term can be used genuinely, and innocently, between strangers, but it also connotes a level of sleaziness in certain situations. The average women can think of a moment when she’s been addressed as ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ in an overly familiar tone by someone she doesn’t know. Usually this false intimacy is trying to get her to buy something, and it grates. Měinǚ is similarly used by salespeople, housing agents, and customers who want better service.

Nǚshì is also used as ‘lady’ or ‘madam’, and is more neutral than měinǚ but less commonly used because there is possibly a class element at work here. Some might say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but I think they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.

Finally, there are the familial terms of address that commonly get used outside the family setting. For men, there is shūshu, which means uncle and implies that the individual being addressed is older than the speaker. This is what a parent or grandparent would instruct a child to call an adult male who holds the door for the family: “Say ‘thank you, shushu.’”

ayishushu
Taking a ride on the āyí mobile © Cas Sutherland

The equivalent for women is ‘āyí’. As it means auntie, āyí implies familiarity, but is also used for any woman older than the speaker. Children to young adults, young adults to older women. However, it is also used to describe female workers, like cleaners, cooks, babysitters, live-in child-minders, and often implies the woman is middle-aged or older. Yet it still retains its original meaning and is used without thought about a hired worker one moment and a family member the next.

How are we to believe Mao’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, come nánhái for boys, and nǚhái for girls. These pronouns are commonly used from infancy through teens and into the twenties. Similarly, nǚshēng and nánshēng refer to a young person’s student status, whether at school or university. Around twenty, young men begin to reject such infantilising terms, preferring something akin to ‘big boy’ or ‘man’. But many women continue to use nǚhái throughout their twenties and even into their late thirties, if unmarried. The reason, perhaps, being the lack of an alternative with positive connotations; unmarried women would rather be infantilised than referred to as an old woman, as a prostitute, or as ‘leftover’.

One of the most stigmatised and problematic terms in Chinese is ‘shèngnǚ’, or ‘leftover woman’. Unlike all the other pronouns listed above, shèngnǚ is rarely used in direct address or to refer to individuals. However, it is commonly used to refer to a major social issue in China, in news reports, advertisements, and other media. Women who have chosen to focus on their career instead of getting married at a young age, or have simply not found the right person to settle down with by the age of 27, are referred to as ‘leftover’. While a woman in this situation may not hear herself referred to as a shèngnǚ, she might instead be told by relatives and friends: “no-one will want to marry you.”

One of the most problematic gendered terms in English is mankind’, which rests on the outdated principle that using ‘man’ to mean the human species, is gender neutral. Here, apparently, the Chinese have got it right: ‘rénlèi’ means ‘human’, ‘humanity’ or literally, ‘people kind’.

What does all of this say about Chinese society? Well, it seems clear that all terms of address, whether formal or familiar, are gendered in some way. Every pronoun seems to carry some kind of connotation, but those for women tend to have more serious, offensive or damaging implications than those for men.

xiaonuhairandmama
Xiǎo nǚháizi and māma © Cas Sutherland

Chinese women constantly hear references to their age, marital status, appearance, and sexual availability, simply when being addressed by the people around them. Girls and young women grow up into this culture, knowing that their language is lacking something essentially positive and uplifting for women. Not to mention the use of gendered pronouns for those people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, how does any woman find her own sense of identity and self worth within this restrictive, dogmatic system?

How are we to believe Mao Zedong’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?

With conversations about gender becoming ever more prevalent worldwide, and contemporary social movements problematizing traditional notions of sexuality and gender, it is increasingly more important that our use of language reflect the reality of life in China. My ultimate remedy? Find new pronouns.

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