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Parents in China routinely introduce me to their children as 爷爷.  Okay.  Adults usually do not use family terms with me. 

There was one case that I wonder about.  In a fish restaurant where they had seen me before, I got my first squilla/虾蛄.  I was doing okay, but obviously not experienced with eating them.  The manager came over to my table and said 姐姐给你看  She did a very expert job, showing me at each step exactly how.  Of course I was pleased at her kindness. 

But I would like to understand better: She was probably 10 or 15 years younger than me. Did she use 姐姐 because that is normal when we are somehow close to the same generation?  Or out of politeness so she would not be calling me old? I have to say Chinese people (not only children) are often quite frank at calling me old. Could she have called herself 妹妹, or would that be very unlikely between strangers? Or would it be because she was taking the lead to teach me a skill?  Could she have called me 叔叔 or would that be wrong somehow? 

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    "She was probably 10 or 15 years younger than me" - that might be a wrong assumption, seeing how Asians are usually looking younger than their age. Also being treated as younger spark joys. – Alex Dec 31 '19 at 16:46
  • Could you please tell me how old and which gender you are? For old men, we use "爷爷"; but for not very old women, we use "姐姐". Why people use two terms, "爷爷" and "姐姐", it seem they can't be used on the same person. – T-Pioneer Sep 12 at 0:01
  • @T-Pioneer People often introduce me as 爷爷, to their children. – Colin McLarty Sep 13 at 3:04
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She identify herself as 姐姐 to show she is “powerful” or “knowledgeable” in doing whatever you don’t know how to do. Sometimes you call a female 姐姐 for showing respect. Even for people younger than you, they may still identify themselves as 姐姐, because 妹妹 is too flirtatious. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to call a female 姐姐 when you know she’s clearly younger than you (not in your situation, as she has called herself 姐姐). And, females don’t like to be called 阿姨 by strangers even though they’re much older than you, so 姐姐 is a safer bet.

Another popular term to call young females (even though they might be younger than you) is 小姐姐, which has a lot meanings than it used to be. So the use of it depends on context, but generally I treat it as a nickname for young beautiful females. Pls be careful using it though. A lot of materials online you can search about.

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  • What about a woman who is clearly much younger than I am? I mean an adult, but much younger than me, and not doing anything knowledgeable that would make her 姐姐. Is 妹妹 okay then, or is it still not best? Actually most of my conversations with strangers are with restaurant workers or hotel workers. I guess 服务员 is safest. But sometimes i stay somewhere long enough that we get to recognize each other. – Colin McLarty Dec 31 '19 at 22:39
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    @ColinMcLarty It depends on who the person is and the context... 妹妹 can be used in some situation, but if she's a waitress, you probably don't want to use 妹妹.. normally you can use 美女 or 小姑娘 – sylvia Jan 1 at 0:42
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Here we are again on the intricate, "confusing" network that foreign speakers need to navigate around the "right", "wrong", "maybe right, maybe wrong" way of addressing and being addressed when around Chinese people, whether in China or elsewhere.

First of all there isn't a one-size-fits-all words or phrases that cover all or any delicate or indelicate situations, social or private, like "Miss", "Lady", "Madam" which are ultra safe in 99% of situations in English speaking places.

To answer your queries:-

(1) Parents in China routinely introduce me to their children as 爷爷.

Family relationships are of the utmost importance to the Chinese and introducing you as "grandfather" to their children, (who actually know you have no blood relationship to them), is a mark of great honor and respect not just for you as a person but also you are now officially part of the family, (whether you like it or not), and for your old age as well which is historically much treasured.

(2) The manager came over to my table and said 姐姐给你看.

She said "Let elder sister show you how its done", (though she could be 40 years younger than you) Now, depending on her tone of voice and whether it was with a smile, it could, one, be just a straight forward professional gesture to help a paying customer, or, two, as the " 姐姐" part might indicate, an act, (bordering on playful sarcasm), of an elder sister instructing her younger brother how to do some, to her, really simple tasks, something which an elder sister should teach a younger brother.

She might be factually wrong in terms of age-relations between you two, but she was right from the pedagogical point of view. But then again, she could just be down right sarcastic towards an old clumsy foreigner.

(3) Could she have called me 叔叔 or would that be wrong somehow?

No, not wrong, as the Chinese have now taken to using "Uncle" rather loosely to mean a male of your father's age, like all things "Western". However, we have “USD” which does not mean US Dollars but 糖叔叔爸爸, i.e. Uncle Sugar Daddy, (USD)

(4) Could she have called herself 妹妹

Well, to the Chinese, especially the older generations, knowledge, wisdom are in the domain of the old and aged. She has to be your 姐姐 to claim the "right" to teach you anything. In certain playful situations when a ten year old kid tries to be argumentative, the adults may condescendingly say, 是,你老人家说的对。

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  • Oh yes the use of family terms is nice -- even though 爷爷 is not my favorite! I mentioned it so you would know something of how old i look. And I am very sure 姐姐 meant a both friendly and professional gesture. This was a newly opened neighborhood restaurant, so a regular foreign customer could only be good for business. But also the whole staff was amused and helpful with my Chinese. Anyway, eating 虾蛄 without cutting your fingers is not so simple – Colin McLarty Jan 2 at 11:55
  • Glad things worked out. Have a good day or night wherever you are. – Wayne Cheah Jan 2 at 14:17

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