Today in class we were talking about family relationships, a topic that very quickly becomes confusing in Chinese! A few words are similar – mama, baba...and that's about it. No generic “grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle” etc. Almost every relationship has a different term depending on if it is the father's or mother's side, if the person is a blood-relative or married in, and also if the person is younger or older than yourself (or whoever you are comparing them to). For example...
Ge-ge: older brother (sao-zi: older brother's wife)
Di-di: younger brother (di-mei: younger brother's wife)
Jie-jie: older sister (jie-fu: older sister's husband)
Mei-mei: younger sister (mei-fu: younger sister's husband)
Nai-nai: father's mother
Ye-ye: father's father
Wai-po/lao-lao: mother's mother
Wai-gong/lao-ye: father's father
Da-bo: father's older brother
Da-jiu: mother's older brother (jiu-ma: mother's older brother's wife)
Xiao-gu: father's younger sister
Xiao-yi: mother's younger sister
Biao-jie: older female cousin (father's sister's daughter or mother's sibling's daughter)
Er xi-fu: son's wife
Nu-xu: daughter's husband
Wai-sheng-nu: granddaughter – daughter's daughter
Sun-nu: granddaughter – son's daughter
I could go on, but you get the idea: it is endlessly complicated! I think there are several reasons for this: First, family relationships are obviously very important in China, so the language includes very specific descriptions of those relationships.
Second, age and status are very important, so older siblings and people in the older generation should be shown proper respect. An older brother and a younger brother just aren't the same thing. An older brother's wife has the highest status of all the wives in the family, so she gets a different name. Thus I will always have a higher status than Kevin's younger brother Scott and call him di-di, even though he is older than me, since I married the firstborn son. Smart going on my part. :)- I will also inherit the family fortune. Oh wait... Anyway, in the past, family status was especially important, but today it is still important for showing the proper respect.
Third, the wife's family and husband's family are viewed rather differently. In the past, the wife left her family to join the husband's family, and while this isn't exactly the case anymore, the idea is still there. Many relationships on the wife's side have the character “wai” (literally meaning outside/outsider) because the relationship with the wife's family isn't as close a bond. At least in theory, though our teacher explained that practically this often isn't the case anymore. But this is part of why it is so important to have a son – you lose your daughter to another family, but a son will carry on your family line.
It is pretty interesting to see all the culture that goes behind these complex relationship terms, but overall I'm just glad not to have too much extended family!!