Word of the Week: měi nǚ
This is because “beautiful lady”, měi nǚ 美女, is a perfectly acceptable way to refer to any young female whose name you don’t know. In fact, it’s extremely common in Chinese culture to not call people by their names unless you know them well. Anyone who has ever taught English in China will be quite aware of this. Even now I occasionally wake up in cold sweats to the nightmarish sound of kids shouting “teacher!” (“tea-cha! tea-cha! tea-cha!”)
Similarly, classmates will call each other classmate, tóng xué, teachers will call other teachers teacher, lǎo shī, and communists call each other comrade, tóng zhì. Although you have to be careful with the last one because comrade, tóng zhì, is now a widely used slang term for homosexual, although party members don’t like to admit that for obvious reasons.
So you want the attention of the waitress in the restaurant? You could just shout out “waitress”, fú wù yuán, but if she looks under thirty and isn’t too ugly měi nǚ will sound much more colloquial and is perfectly acceptable for both men and women to say. měi 美 literally means “beautiful” and is a common prefix. The word for delicious is měi wèi, beautiful taste, and the word for gem is měí shí, beautiful stone.
nǚ 女 you can probably guess means female. It used to be common for young women to be generically referred to as xiǎo jie (little older sister) and many textbooks still teach this. You need to extremely cautious here because xiǎo jie is now slang for prostitute. For this reason I highly recommend you do not go around calling young Chinese women xiǎo jie, no matter what your textbook might say. It’s much safer to just stick with měi nǚ 美女.