M.I.T. Grandpa.

In Connie Wang’s NY Times review (archived) of Wenyan Lu’s novel The Funeral Cryer (a fine example, by the way, of the benefits of opening up the paper to a more diverse group of reviewers), she talks about the “professional wailers, usually from China, who are paid to cry at funerals”:

While I’ve never personally witnessed a funeral crier, my family comes from the parts of China that still employ this and other local traditions that have endured even as their young people have moved abroad. For example, my American husband finds it confusing that I don’t know the given names of my extended family members despite my closeness to them; he can’t understand why a 36-year-old woman still refers to her friends’ parents as “Soft Tofu” or “M.I.T. Grandpa.”

Observed through a Western lens, this preference for pet names and terms of kinship can seem juvenile, even disrespectful. But for Chinese people with roots in small villages, this is simply the way life is, and has been. The lack of given names is just one of the cultural dissonances that Wenyan Lu employs throughout her debut novel […]

It reminded me of the variety of naming practices discussed in this 2011 post (“In Thailand people have a nickname, that is usually not related to their actual name, and will generally use this name to address each other in non-formal situations. […] Often they will have different nicknames for family and friends.”).


  1. Nice neo-strong past there: “Wouldn’t you rather die and be twung into a tree?”

  2. I remain puzzled as to what else you’d call Soft Tofu and M.I.T. Grandpa.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    I too am puzzled by the idea that there’s something inappropriate about calling people by their name, merely because some busybody deems that name to be inappropriate.

  4. I’m not sure what degree of faux-naivety there is in all this recent puzzlement, but just to be clear, those are not names but nicknames.

  5. “M.I.T. Grandpa” is not a name; it’s a T-shirt.

  6. I’m not sure what degree of faux-naivety there is in all this recent puzzlement, but just to be clear, those are not names but nicknames.

    Let me put it another way: “Soft Tofu” is strange to me and “M.I.T. Grandpa” almost equally so, but is it really any stranger than something normal like “Grandma New House”?

  7. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of the many names of an internationally famous Chinese man:

    Sun’s genealogical name was Sun Deming (Syūn Dāk-mìhng; 孫德明).[3][10] As a child, his pet name [zh] was Tai Tseung (Dai-jeuhng; 帝象).[3] In school, the teacher gave him the name Sun Wen (Cantonese: Syūn Màhn; 孫文), which was used by Sun for most of his life. Sun’s courtesy name was Zaizhi (Jai-jī; 載之), and his baptized name was Rixin (Yaht-sān; 日新).[11] While at school in Hong Kong under British rule, he got the art name Yat-sen (Chinese: 逸仙; pinyin: Yìxiān).[12] Sun Zhongshan (孫中山; Cantonese: syūn jūng sāan, romanized Chung Shan), the most popular of his Chinese names in China, is derived from his Japanese name Kikori Nakayama (中山樵 Nakayama Kikori), the pseudonym given to him by Tōten Miyazaki when he was in hiding in Japan.[3] His birthplace city was renamed Zhongshan in his honour probably shortly after his death in 1925 and uses that name. Zhongshan is one of the few cities named after people in China and has remained as the official name of the city during Communist rule.

  8. Yes, that’s a good example; when I went to Taiwan to teach college I quickly learned that nobody knew what I meant when I talked about “Sun Yat-sen” because they all knew him as Zhongshan.

  9. Chinese students in the US, of course, often take on an additional western name or nickname, even sometimes when their Chinese name is not difficult for US one-language speakers to pronounce.

    Semi-related, The Guardian this year asked, “Is America’s oldest Chinese restaurant in a tiny suburb of Sacramento? Historians investigate.” That’s called Chicago Cafe, reportedly that (in 1906!?) Chicago had a reputation for good Chinese food (??). Get my skepticism?
    Or it is just very American-sounding, Chicago,
    and dare I wonder about Chi-town?

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course in context “oldest Chinese restaurant” means “oldest still-surviving” such thing, which may depend on any number of intervening historical contingencies and improbabilities and is not much evidence as to how important either Sacramento or Chicago were to the U.S. Chinese-restaurant scene circa 1906.

  11. Technically possible. I did assume that Californians circa 1906 were not impressed that better authentic Chinese food was to be found in Illinois.

  12. As someone whose Father, brother, and nephew, attended M.I.T., I can easily understand the nickname.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    That is an interpretation I had not thought of. Is the Chinese community in which MIT Grandpa lived a bluenose (no offence) or a “Grandparents worked hard so parents could go to high school and work hard so children, maybe only one child, could go to MIT” community?

  14. @Paddy: it’s not really necessary that the grandpa in question was the only one in the family who had gone to university, just that going to MIT made him easily identifiable against other grandpas (maybe he was banging about it all the time). When my daughter was little, she called my grandmother Oma Hund “grandma dog” because she had a dachshund, and my mother Oma Katze “grandma cat” because she had a cat. She knew other people who had cats or dogs, but the attributes made it clear whom she was talking about.

  15. “this preference for pet names and terms of kinship can seem juvenile, even disrespectful. ”

    Actually, using given names would be impertinent, even disrespectful.

  16. A direct link is obviously (almost) impossible but I find it interesting that both of these things also existed in Galiza: professional wailers, the most famous of whom apparently from a village called Cangas (hence the saying “a chorar a Cangas”, “[if you want] to cry [go] to Cangas”, said to a person who is complaining); and nicknames instead of or alongside names but ignoring surnames. My grandfather for instance is called “o Lixeiro” (the light one, which isn’t one of his surnames). Both customs were probably very common elsewhere but the average person just doesn’t know, I doubt Galiza and rural China have such an obscure and random connection.

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