By Vishnu Bisram
I often hear outsiders say that Guyanese and Trinis have more ‘aunts and uncles’ than anyone else on the globe. It is because people in both societies (and probably Suriname as well) tend to refer to elders by the endearing ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ rather than by their names or as Mr and Ms.
I travel extensively around the globe and from my findings, the terms Aunty and Uncle apparently were introduced and institutionalized in the Caribbean by the indentured Indian laborers, because in societies where there aren’t large numbers of Indians, the terms are not commonly used.
Among Indian communities worldwide, Aunty and Uncle are commonly used to refer to elders even if they are not relatives. They are used all over India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal, even in government offices. The terms are used in Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Mauritius, etc where there are large communities of Indians. I heard them used by Indians to address complete strangers, as in Guyana, in places like Australia and New Zealand and in North America, UK, Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, and Guadeloupe. When I first visited Australia in 1995, there were hardly any Indians. But by 2015, there were large communities of Indians among whom Aunty and Uncle are in common us as well as ethnic kinship terms (Cha Cha, Cha Chi, etc) to refer to blood or marriage relatives.
In Trinidad, as in Guyana, while Aunty and Uncle are used, I heard non-Indians refer to others as ‘Mister’ and ‘Missus’. Some Indians also used Mister and Miss to refer to fellow Indians they are not familiar with, but in general Indians tend to use the more endearing Aunty and Uncle. In Guyana, Indians in rural areas tend to refer to some non-Indians as Aunty and Uncle and rural Africans also use the terms to refer to some Indians in their communities among whom they grew up, as well as fellow Africans.
In Durban and other parts of South Africa, Aunty and Uncle are commonly used among Indians along with their ethnic kinship terms. Some Blacks who live in Indian communities also follow Indians and use Aunty and Uncle in referring to older Indians.
In Fiji, the Black Fijians also refer to older Indians as Aunty and Uncle. The same is true in Mauritius where Creoles (local Blacks, Mixed and French) who live among Indian communities follow suit. In Australia, I heard some Whites, who regularly socialize with Indians among whom I interacted, refer to elderly Indians as Uncle and Aunty as well. Ditto in New Zealand! But in the mainstream, Whites in Australia and New Zealand use Mr and Ms to refer to others (regardless of age) as a mark of respect as is the norm in North America and Europe.
The interesting finding in my travels, is that in North America and Europe the Indians persist with using Aunty and Uncle to refer to older folks. In British Columbia and in Los Angeles and San Francisco among Fijian Indians, ethnic kinship terms and Aunt and Uncle are commonly used. Youngsters in San Francisco called me uncle at a store. And Hindus in their temple surroundings or in a community relationship, whether in New York, Florida, San Francisco or Dallas use Bhai and Bahin to describe those in their age group. Some Indians use Mai and Pai as well as Cha Chi and Cha Cha, Nani and Nana, Mamu and Mami to refer to those much older than them even when there is no blood relationship. It is all done out of respect for the elderly or for fellow humans. A visit at a West Indian temple in Brixton, London found Bhai and Bahin commonly used to refer to each other as is the custom in America.
Among Indians it is considered disrespectful not to refer to someone much older than yourself as Aunty or Uncle even in societies like the US. However, at the workplace, Mr and Ms are routinely used. (Photo Credit: www.notonthehighstreet.com)
The story was first published in Guyana-based The Stabroek News as a Opinion Letter. It may be noted that Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad have a rich presence of people of Indian origin.