There are many Chinese terms for grandparents, and they vary from region to region. In many Asian families, different names are used for maternal and paternal grandparents, and that is true in traditional Chinese culture. That can be confusing, as cousins may call their grandparents by different names, depending upon which side of the family they come from.
In Mandarin the most commonly used name for a paternal grandmother is nai nai, sometimes spelled nie nie.
The formal term is zu mu. For maternal grandmothers, lao lao is commonly used, with wai zu mu being the more formal term. The Taiwanese term for a grandmother is ama.
Regional variations include ma ma for paternal grandmothers and po po (sometimes wai po) for maternal grandmothers.
These terms would be capitalized if used as a particular grandparent's name.
Need more info? You can learn about the Chinese word for grandfather, see and hear family names in Mandarin or learn about grandmother names in other countries. You can also see a comprehensive list of grandmother names and find answers to FAQs about grandparent names.
The Status of Chinese Grandparents
Asian grandparents exhibit several characteristics that are somewhat different from more Westernized grandparents, and these characteristics are certainly typical of Chinese grandparents. They are more likely to reside with children in a multigenerational home.
When grandparents become elderly and in need of care, their adult children are expected to provide physical care and financial assistance if needed. This duty is considered so important that in 2013 China's Law to Protect the Elderly was revised to include a requirement that adult children visit their parents "often."
Grandparent Child Care
For their part, Chinese grandparents provide much value to the younger generations. In China, many grandparents provide child care, often on a full-time basis. According to an article in Atlantic magazine, 90% of children in Shanghai and 70% of children in Beijing were being cared for by grandparents. Grandparent child care is prevalent in all different segments of society, from high-powered two-career families to impoverished migrant workers who leave their children in the care of grandparents when they follow jobs. Chinese grandparents are seldom paid for child care, although that practice is common in some other Asian countries, such as Korea.
The typical Chinese family structure for some years has been what some call "four-two-one" -- four grandparents, two parents, one child. This structure has made it easier for parents to leave child care to the grandparents -- there are four grandparents to care for one child. Some have said that this structure leads to grandchildren being spoiled and sometimes overfed. Indeed, there has been considerable concern that grandparents are making their grandchildren fat.
With the two-child policy becoming official in 2016, those odds will change somewhat.
Of course, not all grandparents survive and are healthy enough to care for children, and some grandparents have multiple children and thus multiple grandchildren to claim their attention.
Multigenerational Living Among Chinese-Americans
Chinese families in the U.S. are less likely to share a home than are Chinese families living in China, but they are still more likely than the general population of the United States to have a multi-generational living situation. Overall, Asian families are more than twice as likely as white Americans to live in a home that contains at least two adult generations.
There's another significant difference between Asian-American multigenerational households and other households consisting of multiple generations. Among whites, blacks and Hispanics, multigenerational households are often temporary and often consist of young adults who move back and forth between their parents' house and their own housing, often due to economic difficulty.
Asian-Americans are more likely to meld households at a later stage, when members of the younger generation are well-established in their jobs. Besides being influenced by their cultural upbringing, Asian-Americans tend to see such households as eminently practical. When the grandparents are able, they can help care for their grandchildren. When they become unable to do so, they will be in the same household so that their adult children can care for them. Economical savings are often a factor in such decisions. Recent or somewhat recent immigrants may also find multigenerational households more supportive and more comfortable than households made up of nuclear families.
Chinese-American Grandparents as Caregivers
There are no definitive statistics about the number of Chinese-American grandparents who care for grandchildren, but one survey of almost 3,000 found that about one-third provided child care for at least 12 hours a week. That survey, published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, reached several interesting conclusions. For example, it found that 80% of the care-giving grandparents said that they did not find child care burdensome. They also reported less depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness than Chinese-American grandparents not providing child care. The abstract posits that this high rate of satisfaction could be partly due to a "strong cultural expectation of family care." In other words, because the Chinese culture emphasizes family members caring for each other, grandparents who take part in such care are more satisfied.
Those who reported being unhappy with their caregiving experience reported pressure from their adult children and the feeling that they had no choice about whether to provide child care.