I remember one time long ago, Mother introduced her best friend as my “Gan-ma”, and insisted for me to address Auntie Huang by that title. That was a bit weird because I had been accustomed to call her “Auntie Huang.”
Another time, well into my adulthood, my older brother introduced a woman friend to me as my “Gan-jie” (older sister)… That was even weirder because I never met, even heard of her before… And I thought why on earth did he need a younger sister? What am I, chopped liver? (In a hind sight, she turned out to be a great pal on Facebook, lol…)
So what is “Gan” exactly?
“Gan” (乾) by its literal meaning is “dry.” With that, for the sake of explanation, blood relation is “wet.” When the word “Gan” is placed in front of an immediate family title, for example, Gan-ba, Gan-ma, etc., would make the set of words become “Father or Mother ‘without blood relations.'” The closest English usage translates these words to Godfather or Godmother.
However, the Chinese do not get a Gan-ba or a Gan-ma by getting baptized. Instead, they go through a ritual…
I remember witnessing my brother’s friend becoming my mother’s Gan-son. We had a tea offering ritual, and my brother was the Moderator of Ceremony. Mother was sitting in her chair, with a huge grin on her face throughout the entire event. The new son knelt down and offered her a cup of tea. Then the MC chanted “一鞠躬…” (Yi-ju-gong…) The new son, following the MC’s cue, knocked his head once on the floor, facing Mother. MC then chanted again, “再鞠躬… 三鞠躬…” (Zai-ju-gong… San-ju-gong…) as the new son continued to knock his head two more times, before the ritual would be over.
The tea offering ritual signifies promises to each other. The deep bow or head-knocking ritual was added here because it was for a Gan-mother-and-child relation. Head knocking ritual is the utmost respect one can pay to his/her elders, or to a person of higher ranking or generation. For Gan-sibling formation, therefore, for example, the head knocking may be omitted by choice.
Once the ritual was through, two people formed a spiritual tie, and promised to regard each other as if they were related by blood. By witnessing the ceremony, I was comfortable enough to call the new son “Gan-ge” (older brother.) As for my other Gan relatives, I never verified nor witnessed the the Gan formations with Auntie Huang, nor with Gan-jie. Perhaps that’s why, deep down, I never recognized them in the way I was told.
The Gan Relation often interestingly satisfies an individual’s missing part in his/her circle. For example, I knew Auntie Huang didn’t have a daughter, which was likely why I became her “Gan-daughter”, I felt weird calling her “Gan-ma” because I already have a mom… So that didn’t stick.
In short: The Chinese would always have a way to complicate their lives, in the name of simplifying their lives.
From the break room.