Recently while in a nearby park with a friend, we saw two very cute little kids being pushed by their grannies in strollers. We stopped and chatted, and I said ni hao (hello) to the kids. One of the grandmothers smiled and prompted the kids, saying, shuo nai nai hao, whereupon my friend broke into hysterical laughter, and I descended into an instant black hole of depression. You see, shuo nainai hao means "say hello to the granny!!!
In Chinese culture, the family is very important, and this is reflected in the language. Within the family, members often don’t use names, but rather call each other "elder brother, younger sister, son, grandma" and the like. If there are three sons in the family, for instance, the parents would likely call them Son Number One, Son Number Two, and Son Number Three.
But this use of relationship terms extends outside of the family as well, and can be transferred to friends and even perfect strangers. Thus, if you meet a woman who is clearly younger than you are, it is polite to call her xiaojie (younger sister). If the woman is clearly a few years older, than you would call her dajie (older sister). Boys of course would be younger brother and elder brother. If the person you meet is of your parents generation, then you would call them aunt or uncle.
When I first came to China, the most common term of address that I heard was xiaojie. That slowly changed to Dajie. But nainai!!!! I certainly wan’t prepared for that!!!! After I emerged from my depression, and after buying out the anti-aging cream at the local Hypermarket, I told a Chinese friend about the exchange. She laughed and reminded me that the term nainai had not been used to signal that I was old, but because the difference in age between the toddler and I was two generations!!! In other words, it didn’t have anything to do with my age!!
Whew.. That was a relief. I think……