“Aunty” Debate Resonates
Editor’s Note: We received numerous letters in response to Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan’s “Please Don’t Call Me Aunty” (India Currents, Feb. 2009). Below are a few…
“Please Don’t Call Me ‘Aunty’” brought forth an interesting issue affecting Indians, both young and old. Although the author dislikes being called “aunty,” she doesn’t say exactly how someone 20+ years younger should address her. In India, an elderly woman may be offended if a much younger person were to ask how she would like to be addressed. That is why we need a commonly accepted default salutation (which may be subsequently changed to suit individual preference).
American salutations like Ms., Mrs., and Madam seem too formal in the Indian context. The author suggests that “aunty” should be used only for family members and long-term associates. My proposition is to use “aunty” for all but these cases. In other words, use traditional Indian words like maami and mausi for older women who are closely related (by blood or otherwise), and use aunty for everyone else—neighbors, acquaintances, and so on. And let us thank the English language for giving us these lovely words—uncle and aunty—that effectively convey this casual, but important cultural connection.
The article also raises the issue of cultural reverence for age. However, it seems to me that many Indian Americans are a bit ambivalent about this issue. Swayed by an American culture that idolizes youth, they try hard to look and act younger than their age. But can you really engender much respect for age when the very distinction between old and young is blurred?
In Indian culture, respect for age is founded on an inter-generational social compact. The older generation nourishes the younger generation with love, care, money, wisdom, and good wishes for the future. Moreover, it avoids competing with the younger generation in most spheres of life: admissions, jobs, fashion, looks, and so on. The younger generation reciprocates with respect, affection, and gratitude. This social compact has been upheld by the collective effort of many a close relative and not-so-close aunty. Would an aunty by any other name do just as well?
Vijay Gupta, Cupertino, Calif.
We have had several discussions amongst our circle of friends regarding the usage of “aunty” and “uncle.” Here is my observation, without any actual scientific data to prove it.
I think there is a North India-South India divide (and I don’t mean to start an argument about which geographical region is right). Those of us who grew up in the North have the notion that a name like didi, bhabhi, chachi, mami or aunty is the appropriate and respectful way to address folks. Coming from the North, you just don’t call people by their first name. On the other hand, my friends and family from South India are quite comfortable addressing elders by their first names. They do not intend any disrespect; neither is it perceived as disrespectful at the recipient’s end.
I agree with the author that “aunty” should be reserved for a close circle of friends of your parents. Other than that, please ask the person who you are addressing how they would they like to be addressed. Being presumptuous and making the choice for them is what is really disrespectful, not either using or not using the term “aunty.”
As a 23 year old brought up in America, I’m coming to a transition period regarding whether it is ok to call someone “aunty” or not. As a child, you can get away with calling any adult “aunty” or “uncle.” I must say, I’m guilty of the fact that sometimes, when you just don’t remember someone’s name, you can easily get by with “Hi Aunty, great to see you!” As I become older, I feel the age difference between me and my elders diminish.
However, I disagree with the author’s statement “If you are the same age as my grown children, but I am meeting you for the first time—I am not your aunty.” The word “aunty” isn’t necessarily a right or respect that you earn because you’ve been a part of a child’s life. Rather, I believe the problem mainly arises when a person close to your age calls you aunty, which is clearly not the case when it’s someone who is your child’s age.
This issue really only bothers me when I find people using the word “aunty” to clearly show that they are much younger than another person. But if someone is so insecure about their age that they need to resort to these tactics to try to show themselves as younger and/or better, do we really need to be upset about it? Or should we just realize that this sort of thing will happen whether or not we fix this specific issue?
Vaishali Bhardwaj, online
While Srinivasan’s article talks about the problem with the term “aunty,” it does not provide a viable alternative. I have friends whose grown-up children call me Aunty, and frankly if they addressed me as Manisha I would be offended. If they addressed me as Mrs. Verma, it would sound impersonal and cold. I have relatives who have married into the American community, and when I am addressed as “Manisha” by their kids, I do not feel the same connection for them that I feel for my friend’s kids who are not related to me but call me “aunty.”
Indian culture allows for a certain respect for aging which is totally missing in American culture, where the need to be young forever surpasses things such as warmth for elders, even if you are meeting them for the first time. I have met my friends’ mothers for the first time and not only addressed them as “aunty,” but also touched their feet out of respect. It was not awkward at all, but rather recognition of the fact that we share a certain warmth and respectful connection coming from the same culture.
Manisha Verma, online
“Please Don’t Call Me Aunty” is a fun article and provoked great discussion! As a 40+ year old male, I get called “Mani Uncle” by the whole spectrum of fellow Indian Americans, all the way from their teens into their late 20s. I am sure my gray hair has a lot to do with it! While it doesn’t really bother me, I would suggest the following “etiquette”:
• As long as you are a teen or still in college, your approach of calling an older adult “uncle”/”aunty” works fine for most of us.
• When you turn 21, you are an adult. It works against you if you continue to call older adults “uncles” and “aunties.” You may not realize this, but it creates a certain distance between you and the other person. You end up prematurely emphasizing a “generation gap,” and you lose out on their becoming a good friend or mentor to you.
• The critical time when a relationship between adults gets defined is when you first meet. That’s when you should open the conversation, introduce yourself, and wait for the other person to introduce themselves. If they do not, then you are still better off asking them how they would like to be addressed.
As Shobha suggests, if the adult is someone who has been part of your growing up, they will remain an “uncle” or “aunty” to you for life, as they should.
Mani Iyer, online
A Traditional First Lady
Usually I find Sarita Sarvate’s essays to be sensible, but her latest (“The Personal Becomes Political,” India Currents, February 2009) makes me wonder if we are living in the same country. What exactly is modern about the Obamas’ relationship? Michelle Obama took her husband’s name, abandoned her career to clear the field for his, and has declared her new job to be “Mom-in-chief.” During the campaign, she worked hard to avoid revealing any independent political opinions. A more traditional First Lady is hard to imagine. True, she is no simpering wallflower, but her take on the First Lady’s role is far more traditional than that of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Reagan, or Rosalynn Carter—all of whom generated far more controversy.
As for the Obamas being a familial role model, I agree that, after decades of African American families being typecast as dysfunctional and fractured, it is a pleasant change to have a healthy—and multigenerational—black family in the limelight. But if this is the role model, what is the message? That a flawless, “Father Knows Best” family is still the ideal? Family issues that were previously considered scandalous—divorce, infidelity, mental illness, addiction, homosexuality—are commonplace in American families, and increasingly openly discussed. What role model do the Obamas offer the millions of Americans who are grappling with such issues?
I hope we can celebrate this historic moment without ascribing traits to the Obamas which they do not remotely possess.
Neil Tangri, via the internet
Rupa Dev’s article (“Privileged to Be Parked at Home,” India Currents, December 2008) about living at home was very well written, eloquent, and well put. As someone who moved back home after college, I understand the range of emotions we go through in that experience and reading Rupa’s article gave me some great perspective.
Puja Bhatia, via the internet