“Afu ge ge”, “Leila mei mei”

“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.)  In another incident, a mum of a two-year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22-year-old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they really feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

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10 thoughts on ““Afu ge ge”, “Leila mei mei”

  1. I totally agree with this post. I have 8 year old b/g twins and get asked the same question even now. I hate calling one older sister or older brother, and since we live in Singapore, I coined these words for the. These are combination of Mandarin words – kordi for my son (combination of kor-kor and di-di or older brother and younger brother) and jiamei for my daughter (combining jie-jie and mei-mei or older sister and younger sister)…

    • Thanks for dropping by, and for your thoughts on this topic. You are dealing with it in an interesting way. How do people react when you say kordi and jiemei? I sometimes call them both didi and mei mei. The people either think that I don’t really understand what they are asking, or they take it more lightly, that in reference to them L and R are their younger brother and younger sister.

  2. My mom used to despise that question, along with about a billion others that she would be asked about us. (identical twins girls).

    Mom often felt like we were treated like a circus side show. People often compared us and expected to hear stories of mystical proportion.

    We were so competitive as sisters, maybe because we were compared so much?

    Fight for their individuality!

    • Hi Shelley,
      Thank you very much for the comment and insight into your experience with this. I spend a lot of energy trying to elegantly work through the “circus side shows”. An ayi of ours once said, the children are treated like “Panda’s” over here in Chengdu!
      So yes, I am always trying to teach and show them that they are individuals. And when they are happy to play with each other, we nurture that too.

  3. My goodness, but I’ve been working on a post on precisely the same topic. It’s a challenging one. I wonder whether hierarchical cultures with a high rate of multiple birth have a more elegant way of handling the situation, or it they simply put more emphasis on birth order.

    • Hey Sadia,
      Interesting. The only other hierarchical culture I know personally is the Indian one, and like the Chinese one, there are also words for older and younger brother or sister. I have no idea how it works for multiple births though. I’ll have to look it up. I’d be interested to read your take on the topic!

  4. I so admire the way you addressed this. My husband’s family is from Jamaica, where gender roles are very clearly defined leaving a host of “inappropriate” behaviours for girls and boys. Like, say, doing pushups for girls or playing with stuffed toys for boys. I don’t approve. But I won’t insult my children’s family. So, when we are with them, we don’t make a big deal out of the toys and roles they encourage of my kids. But when we’re at home, we do talk about how there is no such thing as “girls toys” or “boys toys”. I’m betting hard that what they learn at home will have the most influence. Great post!

    • Hi Desi,
      Thanks, and thanks for the comment.
      I was never subject to the “boys” do this and “girls” do that ideas in my home, but saw others go through it. As a child, I faught it defensively as though it was my battle. I’ve eased up now. It isn’t in my immediate reality, but it does surface in subtle ways everywhere don’t you think? Additionally, by easing up, I am allowing myself to discover more feminine aspects of myself, which is quite nice as well.
      I’m betting on your side! It’s what keeps me going and allows me to “let go” of my children!

  5. I actually always liked the terms, and felt they indicated a type of kinship between strangers (or at least the random playmates we would meet on the sidewalk). I even thought of calling Juliet mei mei as a nickname! Perhaps it is due in part to coming from a family of 3 girls and respecting our differences- whether based on birth order or not.

    • Hey Kalley,
      Juliet mei mei is very cute! I agree that it is lovely to have these terms that immediately give you a sense of connection with the people around. The same goes for ayi, shushu, and even Mei nu for a waitress in Chengdu. But coming from an Indian background that also has words for older and younger brothers and sisters, I know that there is some baggage with it. There is often pressure to live up to the responsibility, and there are expectations that have to be met. Respect is demanded. It is similar in the Chinese culture. You are right that if you respect your differences and you are happy with it all, there is no imposed pressure, it’s all good!

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