Bàbah (ba-BAH), dad • Goong Goong, your mother’s father/grandfather • Po Po, your mother’s mother/grandmother.
When Rich and I had been dating long enough that his parents became a regular part of my life, the tricky business arose of not knowing what to call them. Initially, I called them Mr. and Mrs. Chang—which wasn’t even quite right, though Dr. and Dr. was weirder. Later, sometime after we got engaged, or maybe early into our marriage, I started following Rich’s lead and calling his father Babah—dad, in Mandarin.
It was a pleasing development for me, and I remember explaining to people that this worked out perfectly, since there was no one I already called Babah, and so the word meant nothing to me. But I was still in a lurch as to what to call his mother, since he called her Mom and I already had one of those—it would have been too weird to call her that. If only there was a Chinese word for mother that he used! I’d complained to close friends.
(Ultimately, she told me to just call her Monica, and though this initially felt too informal, with some relief I began to.)
These days, Emerson calls Rich Babah and his father Goong goong (that actually also isn’t the correct name for him—it signifies the grandfather on the mother’s side; but that’s another story). So, now I also call him Goong Goong as well, and in the right context I call Monica Po Po.
Visiting with Rich’s parents last week, it occurred to me how weird it would feel to now call his father Babah,and remembered suddenly the first time I’d used the word to address him—the flash of smile and the look of amusement, or something else, in his eyes that had followed. After that initial reflex, though, he never responded awkwardly, or said or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable about it. He did nothing to make me feel that he was feeling the word.
It mortifies me now to think how lightly I’d used it. No personal emotion was attached, and so I’d treated it with according lightness, not considering the weight that others felt.
Today, of course, it means my spouse; it signifies my family. It means everything.