"Afu ge ge", "Leila mei mei"

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“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.)  In another incident, a mum of a two year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22 year old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they actually feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is just for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

How do you answer the question, “Which twin is older?” If you have older twins or multiples, what are their thoughts on this?


Natasha, mum of Leila and Rahul was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can find more of her thoughts and stories at Our Little Yogis.


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Natasha Devalia

I am mum of twins Leila and Rahul. I recently moved to Koh Samui, Thailand (Jan 2013) with her children after spending 7 years in China. My husband travels back and forth for his work. I have started practicing my yoga more regularly again, and even teach a few classes a week, after a three year break. I blog at Our Little Yogis http://natashadevalia.com and at Multicultural Mothering http://multiculturalmothering.com

8 thoughts on “"Afu ge ge", "Leila mei mei"”

  1. My boys are only 2 months old but I have already gotten the “who is older” question. My boys are only a minute apart because they were delivered by c-section so is one really older? Does a minute truly matter? Usually I just tell people they are twins and are the same age. I am sure one day the boys will ask and I will tell them. If people really probe me about it I usually tell them one is a minute older than the other which essentially makes them the same age!

  2. I get this all the time! When I say “They’re 3 minutes apart, so the same age”, people say but one MUST have come first. When I don’t respond, they usually choose one baby (the shorter but heavier one usually) and say “Big brother take care of little brother”. It drives me nuts.

  3. My favourite is when I answer the question, and people respond, “Ah, yes, I could tell.” REALLY?!!
    I try to avoid answering the question, but it seems to mean more to some people than others depending on their culture.
    Great post Natasha.

  4. We get the same question all the time followed up by how far apart? Wow! Sometimes it’s as though people are just asking for TMI. I tell people candidly : “Well their birth certificate says 1 minute apart but I was there and can tell you it wasn’t more than thirty seconds. I often can’t remember myself who made it out of the gate first.” This is usually more than enough info to satisfy their query.
    I have a twin sister, and I can remember that while no one in our family made it a big deal, the 7 minute difference was big to us as kids. I remember our kid logic was that as I was “older”, when we reached the end of our long lives , I would die exactly 7 minutes before my sister!

  5. The birth order question doesn’t bother me, and I guess I always felt the boys were entitled to have the “older brother” or “younger brother” experience according to their birth order. But then, I am the oldest but in many instances my younger sister has taken on that role in my family of origin, so maybe I’m coming to the table with a different perspective.

    Our twins are our middle children, sandwiched between their sisters, and we like that we don’t have a single middle child to take on that role, since middle children often seem to dislike being in the middle.

    Although our twins have been able to express which boy was older (by 2 minutes) since before they could verbalize it, I don’t see any difference in how they relate to each other.

  6. My twins (5 minutes apart) are half-Chinese so to an extent I understand your issues. My in-laws tend to push the birth order but only to other Chinese. They use “ge ge” and “di di” when talking about the boys. I don’t know much but those are a few of the words I can recognize in a conversation they’re having. Interestingly, they don’t use their Chinese names ever, only their English names. And they don’t bother teaching the boys any Chinese even though we’ve both asked multiple times.

    We don’t refer to them with any birth order. If asked, I will say that Alex is 5 minutes older than Benjamin. To which they usually respond that they knew he was the older one because he’s bigger. And that aggravates me even more than the birth order question.

  7. Funny, my 3-year-old boy/girl twins refer to each other as “little sister” and “little brother”! I have never talked to them about their birth order … so who knows where they got it from?

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