“…Family is my uncles, my aunts, and my chithis”, as Senator Kamala Harris said in the acceptance speech for her Vice Presidential nomination. Whatever is this “Chithi”? The word, which in Tamil means younger aunt, became viral and reminded me of my own cultural reckoning when my children were younger.
“Is it ok if I call Tom’s Mom Pam Aunty?”, my younger one asked about her best friend. Before I could reply, my older one interjected, a little irritated. “Well, you can’t. She isn’t Indian. And by the way Mom, I am not going to call Ruchi Aunty that anymore. It was weird when my teacher asked me if she was your sister or Dad’s, and I said neither.”
I call this the cross-cultural dilemma. It is one of many woes that children of Indian origin face while being raised in the US, when they are required to apply a cultural trait in a culturally-unaware setting. In the Indian culture, “Aunty” is anyone who feels like an Aunt. She doesn’t have to be family. She can be a family friend, Mom’s friend, friend’s Mom, an elderly friend, a neighbor, a caretaker. It is also considered polite to address total strangers, whom one has no better way of addressing, as “Aunty”.
I believe the genesis of this universal usage of the word, started with large, busy families. Indian households are generally buzzing with family members visiting often, neighbors dropping by without appointments or just peeking over their “boundary walls” for a quick chat, or folks you hired to help with cleaning, cooking, gardening or driving, making their trips around the house. Growing up in India, due to the presence of many people around you, one learns the rules of polite social engagement and interaction at an early age. Rule number one for kids is to not call anybody older by their name. At the very least, add a “ji” as a mark of respect, such as “Guptaji”. But in general the “ji” is more formal, and culturally not as warm and inclusive. Using the more endearing “Aunty” or “Uncle” is a form of pulling one’s neighbor, friend, or caretaker closer into one’s family zone.
Though Beware! One has to be very careful before addressing someone as “Aunty”. For adults addressing other adults, the reference assumes an age hierarchy, calling someone “Aunty” is an implicit label that they are older. “Didi” (sister) is the more flattering way to refer to someone who may take an offense to being called “Aunty”. It is safe enough for kids and teenagers to use this as a mark of respect. I know kids who stopped the “Aunty” or “Uncle” reference on becoming adults themselves, deciding that there was no longer a need to maintain the “Indian” age hierarchy.
On migrating to the US, Indians raised in warm, close-knit communities, continue to cherish the value of close relationships, forming new ones in a new country. In their home away from home, friends become family. They look to form similar warm, nurturing communities and obviously cannot forget the rule #1 they learned growing up. Not only will it be rude to not address the grown-ups as Uncle/Aunty, it would instantly bring a cold wedge of formality within the sprouts of the warm new friendship.
To solve the cross-cultural dilemma in the “Aunty Conundrum”, I noticed that these kids learned to improvise. They wear multiple cultural hats and pull them out appropriately, as the time and place demands. They instinctively know when to address “Ruchi Aunty” as such, and when to simply refer to her as Abhi’s Mom, or Mrs. Gupta. My younger one asked Tom’s Mom, “Mrs Grady feels too formal. You feel like an Aunt, may I call you Pam Aunty?”. In the perfect blending of two cultures, Pam accepted graciously! So the next time you hear someone being called “Aunty” it is likely not their Aunt by relation, possibly a friend that feels like family, or even simply a stranger who feels the warmth of being called “Hello Aunty” rather than “Hello there!”.