In this series, we explore expressions seen in everyday life and others with more obscure origins.
People in Hong Kong love describing middle-aged women as 師奶 see1 lai1. You’ve probably heard it uttered by relatives or seen it in local media: it typically describes women of a certain age who have, basically, “let themselves go.”
Some people also use it to describe women with overly traditional Chinese values who lack an open mind and analytical skills — basically someone who isn’t very “woke.”
See1 lai1 wasn’t always so sexist. The term started out in southern China as an affectionate, and respectful, term for married women in lieu of “Mrs”. It was used back when Hong Kong still had close-knit communities and where neighbors would all know each other by name.
Note that although the second character that makes up the term, lai1, literally means “milk” and is usually pronounced as lai5, here it has a higher pitch. In Hong Kong Cantonese, 奶奶 lai5 lai5 is used by women to address their mother-in-laws.
Don’t underestimate the cultural impact see lai have on society. TVB’s soap operas, which air on weeknights, are sometimes referred to as “see lai shows.” Why? Because the TV station tends to cater to the considerably large percentage of see lai following during its dinnertime show slots, producing dramatic soap operas with silly romantic plot lines — and really, nothing of real substance. So don’t expect a Hong Kong “Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones” if you tune into TVB in the evenings.
But even though see lai is a derogatory expression these days, it’s worth considering that some behaviors typically associated with them are actually pretty positive attributes. Bargaining for goods and comparing prices between shop to shop, for example, are major see lai behaviors that indicate financial savvy. And hey, who doesn’t like a good deal while shopping and a TV show that doesn’t require much brainpower? All hail the see lai, we say.