Who are you to call me 'uncle'?

I've been an uncle for seven years now.

My friends will say that I've been an uncle way longer than that, judging from my dress sense. But as a real uncle - one with a nephew or a niece - I can assure you it's been only seven years. 

It took a while for me to get used to being called "uncle" though.

My problem isn't with the word "uncle" itself, which I first heard a young neighbour call me when I was 15 years old.

The toughest adjustment was being bequeathed the title of "bo bo", which is Chinese for "elder uncle".

Since my oldest niece Elysia was born, my largely Chinese-speaking family has insisted that she and my nephews address me as "bo bo" or, the dialect variant "ber ber".

I was horrified. 


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

The first time my family tried to get my niece to call me "bo bo", I blurted out some swear words, which she thankfully did not repeat.

The term is actually correct.

My niece and nephews should call me "bo bo" since I am the elder brother of their father. I've addressed my father's elder brothers the same way since I was a child.

But when it was my turn, "bo bo" freaked me out. Because if you think "uncle" makes a person sound old, you should know that "bo bo" ages one by decades.

For those who are less familiar with Chinese characters, the "bo" in "bo bo" is the same character as the "bo" in "ah bo", more commonly known in dialect as "ah pek" and frequently used in sentences such as, "The lecherous ah pek at the void deck made wolf whistles at the young girls who walked past him."

Bizarrely, these two characters are the same, although you would never call anyone below the age of 60 "ah pek" in real life.

Just like that, I've aged 30 years.

But it gets worse.

The same "bo" is used in "da bo gong", more commonly known in its dialect form "tua pek kong", a popular Chinese deity with bushy white eyebrows and a flowy long beard, frequently used in sentences such as, "I prayed to tua pek kong that people would stop calling me 'bo bo'."

And, so now, I've aged 3,000 years.

As such, "ber ber" - the preferred dialect term my family eventually settled on - was absolutely grating on my ears.

I tried to stop them. Every time I heard somebody teach the kids to say "ber ber", I would interject and repeatedly say, "No, no, no. I'm 'kor kor'. Call me 'kor kor'."

I knew it was ridiculous. Please, their father calls me "kor kor", which is Teochew for "elder brother". And here I was, forcing my brother's children to use the same term of address .

But I didn't care - I hated being called "ber ber" so much.

It was such cruel fate, I bemoaned. If I were the younger brother, I could have been called "shu shu" which - as Mandarin speakers know - sounds much more youthful. 

"Shu shu" would never be used to describe a lecherous 65-year-old, void deck-dwelling, wolf-whistling old man.

It's always "the kind 'shu shu' helped me across the road", or something like that.

No one at home felt my pain, with my indignation serving only as amusement to the rest of my family.

To rub salt into my wound, the children would mispronounce "ber ber" when they were younger.

So I became "purple", "ball ball", "bird bird" and even "bubur", which is Malay for porridge. I was apparently anything except an uncle.

I was resigned to it. Then I got used to it. 

But now, believe it or not, I can't imagine being called anything else by those little rascals.

In the last seven years, "ber ber" has evolved.

It went from a term the children could not pronounce to one they said with confidence, then eventually with some affection.

In fact, due to the amount of time I spend overseas for work, "ber ber" is now often uttered with excitement and joy.

It is the first thing I hear when I see them and it is often accompanied with them running into my arms.

"Ber ber, ber ber! You're back!" they most recently bellowed when I made it back home for Christmas.

I gave them a hug. They were embracing "ber ber", just as I was.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Who are you to call me 'uncle'?'. Print Edition | Subscribe