Mandarin has a separate word for older sister and younger sister. There is a difference between an aunt who’s your mom’s sister, and one who’s married to your uncle, between an uncle on your mom’s side and an uncle on your dad’s side, between the uncle who’s your father’s older brother and one who’s your father’s younger brother. There is a dazzling array of terms for in-laws, step-families and every kind of blended family you can think up. There are varying levels of affection and politeness, from “mother comes late” to “father’s wife.” (as a foreigner, I haven’t been privy to any of the really insulting names, but they exist)
My students, native speakers of this language and the second generation of one-child families, do not have any brothers, sisters or first cousins. The ratio of two parents and four grandparents, and only one child, leads to bizarre situations and unexpected problems in a country which values family so highly.
My Chinese friend Lily asked to see pictures of my friends at home, and when I got to my own “brother” Scep, I tried to explain the situation. I usually just say he’s like a brother, and leave it at that, but Lily nodded said he’s qing mei zhu ma, which means a brother-sister “adoption” between two families. It’s amazing how love of extended family is such an inherent part of the Chinese character that is comes right through the one-child policy.
But I’ll probably tell Scep it means “dumb as pickled chicken hearts.”