Shocked and embarrassed. That's how I felt for a solid 5 minutes.
In 1997, I learned a valuable lesson in humility that brought me closer to my Iu-Mien relatives.
It was a busy afternoon and the house was at full capacity. In the living room, guests sat at two long tables and picked from a variety of authentic Mien dishes prepared from a freshly-slaughtered pig.
My father was sitting next to his brothers (my uncles) and had a good view of who needed another beer or shot and what dishes needed to be replenished. The women were mostly gathered in the kitchen at a round table, where my mom held the same responsibilities.
In the garage, I took it upon myself to set up a table for my younger cousins and friends from high school. I made sure to stack the table with the more popular dishes like barbequed meat, stir-fry, noodle salad, and egg rolls, and of course water and soda. We were all genuinely having a good time. But it wasn’t all fun and games, at least not for me.
Part of my responsibility was picking up our cordless telephone, answering calls and taking it to anyone that needed to make a call. It was a very important job. This was the late 90s, and very few people had cell phones.
Later that day, a cousin of mine who couldn't make it called and asked to speak to his wife, who was busy helping my mom in the living room. I almost yelled out her American name, which would not have been appropriate given how we were surrounded by elders. So I used her kinship term, or what I thought was the correct term.
I walked up to her with the phone and said in Mien, “Muang-nyaam-ah, there’s a phone call for you. It’s Kao.” A burst of laughter came out from the women in the kitchen, but I didn’t know why they were laughing. Later, I found out that I should have referred to her, my Muang-nyaam as Kao-nyaam.
If you’ve made this same mistake or have used the wrong kinship term on a family member, don't sweat it. We've created this Mienh family name infographic to help you. Here is a chart with the proper kinship terms relating to the extended family. The Iu-Mien, like other Asian groups, put a strong emphasis on the extended family, and you may need to refer to this chart from time to time. Once you've mastered this chart and use it to refer to your relatives, you will gain respect, praise from elders, and your relatives will congratulate your parents for "teaching you the proper ways," but we will both know it was all because you self-studied this infographic.
To help you navigate this chart, we've created a family tree and would like you to meet Gen Wang Saechao. She is a second-generation Mien-American and is the youngest sibling in her family. Take a look at how she refers to her in-laws, uncles, aunts, and grandparents’ siblings.
Now let's have some fun.
Take the following quiz, “Guess the Kinship term,” and see how you do.
What would Gen would call her...?
- Mother’s younger sister _____________________
- Father’s older brother _____________________
- Sister-in-law of her older brother _____________________
- Paternal grandfather’s younger sister _____________________
- Father’s older sister _____________________
- Maternal grandmother’s younger brother _____________________
- Mother’s older brother _____________________
- Brother-in-law of her older sister _____________________
- Maternal grandfather’s older brother _____________________
- Paternal grandmother’s younger sister _____________________
1. nziez-maac (zia-maa) 2. baeqv Kuan (pae) 3. Kao nyaam 4. muoc-gux (mua-goo) 5. Muang gou (gow) 6. nauz-ong (nao-ong) 7. domh nauz Cho (thom nao) 8. Mey weiv 9. baeqv-daa (pae-daa) 10. nziez-gux (zia-goo)