“Uncle,” the middle-aged lady in gaudy floral top and black slacks addressed me. “Yow shen mo 1?” she asked in her practiced tone to customers at her chin-chow drink stall. I was rather offended at her addressing me as ‘uncle’. I mean she didn’t look as if she were younger than me so why was she addressing me like that?
The first time I was called ‘uncle’ by strangers who didn’t know me was the time I realized that my age status had elevated. Middle age had surreptitiously crept upon me. Of course, it had its benefits. People around me were beginning to show me more respect, if not for my battle scars then at least for my aura of stability. But it was awful for my vanity and I’d be the first to admit that I am vain…to the largest extent. I hate growing old and looking it.
I mean white hair can be dyed but what do you do with laugh-lines and crow’s feet that seem to appear almost over-night? And what do you do with liver-spots that began appearing on my arms though thankfully not on my face. And of course there is the ‘battle of the middle kingdom’. All these explain the rise of the multi-million dollar cosmetic industry ranging from invasive surgery to non-invasive ones, ranging from botox and liposuction (now infamous because of deaths) to the miraculous SKII which I am told stands for ‘shang kei 2’ which in Cantonese means ‘miraculous’. Now there is even a version for men. Vanity is no longer the prerogative of the fairer sex. Men want to be as ‘fair’. And really, there is nothing wrong with that especially if it gives me more self-confidence.
People around me were beginning to show me more respect,
if not for my battle scars then at least for my aura of stability.
Now this business of ‘uncle’: Where does it come from? It is actually a language-code mis-switching. It comes from the local terms of address – ‘Ah Chek’ or ‘Ah Pek’ which in dialect are age-sensitive as anyone from the older generation who still remembers such things will tell you. ‘Ah Chek’ was used as a term of respect for someone who is older than you and ‘Ah Pek’ for someone older than ‘Ah Chek’. Another dimension to this colourful dialectal melting-pot comes from ‘Ah Tee’ (Little Brother) referring to one much younger than you and ‘Ah Hia’ (Older Brother) referring to those about your age but you give them the respect by acknowledging that they are of higher status than you, hence the Older Brother status. When in doubt as in addressing a stranger who might be around your age but you are not really so sure, you would usually address them by ‘Ah Hia’.
The advent of pidgin English which in actual fact, Singlish is, all the different forms of address became enmeshed into the term ‘Uncle’ since the English language isn’t really as sensitive to such specific distinctions of social and familial hierarchy and position.
Then there is the social and linguistic morph of the term ‘Uncle’ to refer to someone middle-aged. Hence, the offence that many take to being addressed like that.
The curious language situation is something I guess sociolinguists would find interesting but for a layman like me, it suffices to know that when a stranger or someone who barely knows you calls you ‘Uncle’, then you have attained a certain age status which you can either accept graciously or be taken ‘kicking and screaming’. Personally, I prefer the first. I may not have my youth but I surely still have my dignity.
1 要什么？What would you like?
…..I may not have my youth but I surely still have my dignity.