Lihong, my Mandarin tutor, was a Chinese national with a graduate degree in Chinese language and literature. Unfortunately, she’d only been living in Singapore a short time, so while she knew tons of stuff about the Chinese spoken on the mainland, she wasn’t really up on the local lingo.
One of the earliest lessons Lihong taught me was the use of honorifics. I learned that titles are much more important in Chinese culture than they are in the West. My children, for example, were taught to address their teacher as Liu Laoshu: Teacher Liu. In this particular lesson, I learned the word tai tai (太太), which means “wife” and can also mean “Mrs.” (Which would make me Foley Tai Tai.)
I decided to try out my newfound knowledge during a rare foray into a typical expat wife pastime: the facial.
Facialist: You work in Singapore, ah?
Facialist: You no work? Wah — so lucky.
Me (getting defensive): My husband travels a lot and I have small children.
Facialist: Ah, you housewife one! Stay home, lah.
Me (casually showing off): Yes. Wo shi tai tai. (I’m a wife.)
Facialist (screaming with laughter): Wah! What you know about Mandarin? Tai tai, ah? (More uproarious laughter and an explanation in staccato Mandarin to the other estheticians, who laugh so hard the tears stream down their faces and they all get stomach aches.) Now I do face massage.
It turns out that tai tai has a more narrowly defined meaning in Singapore, one that Lihong hadn’t yet picked up on. It translates loosely into “one of the ladies who lunch.” Tai tais are always impeccably made up and coiffed, rail-thin, and outfitted in high-end designer wear. They are invariably haughty, often tote small, fluffy dogs, and take very tiny steps in very high heels. No tai tai worth her salt would be caught dead in public sporting, as I did that day, a stretched-out Gap t-shirt, a messy ponytail, and a bare face. It was painfully obvious to all of us that my reckless claim to being one of them was spurious and completely without merit. I just didn’t have the right stuff.