My best friend’s mom and I only ever have one conversation when I come over. It goes something like this:
“Serena! How are you?”
“I’m good! How are you?”
The rest of the time, we play a game of translation telephone with my friend in the middle. Their mom and I don’t speak each other’s languages. In fact, her English is better than my Spanish. So my friend listens to my stories, translates them, and tells them again, and we all laugh both times.
Despite the clear language barriers, I appreciate the gesture. Our brief dialogue in English makes me feel welcome, and when I take Spanish in the fall, I hope that I’ll be brave enough to attempt at least the same dialogue with her but in Spanish.
Being asked how I am or how my day was is one of the things I didn’t expect to miss when I relocated to Taiwan. My American friends and I often comment on how silly the whole practice is. Sometimes, people say “How are you?” but they really mean it like “Good morning” or “I acknowledge your existence but I don’t really have time to chat.” They’re gone before you can say “good.” But asking people how they are is part of the social script in the US, and I’m honestly kind of lost without it.
In Taiwan, people tell me that they don’t “really” learn to speak English in school, even though they take classes starting from elementary school. And they always cite this example from the dialogues they had to memorize:
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
They think it’s weird because no one talks like that in Mandarin. People here don’t go around asking others how they are. I think that little dialogue is weird cuz no one says they’re “fine” in the U.S. “Fine,” at least for people my age, is tinted with some 2012 Tumblr era angst which doesn’t really mean “fine” at all.
But either way, it’s strange. Because without “how are you?” what do you say to strangers? What is the starting point for conversations with people you haven’t seen in a while? Some people ask if you’ve eaten yet, but that doesn’t feel right for people that you’re not that close with. After all, what are you gonna do if they say no? It’s not really a conversation starter, and I feel like only older people get away with it.
So when I see people at church or at work, I don’t really know what to say after hello. At first, I thought it was a language barrier. Maybe my parents/many semesters of Chinese had just neglected to teach me this really important social phrase that I don’t remember anyone ever saying. But I’ve realized that it’s more of a cultural difference. There’s a lexical gap between English and Mandarin that I didn’t really understand.
In that gap, I’m reminded that I don’t know what to do because I wasn’t here to learn. And now that I’m here and I speak Mandarin fluently, people won’t teach me. They assume I already know. This is both funny and frustrating. I wonder if this is the kind of cultural exchange I missed when I “studied abroad” online over the summer.
Culture is more than the big things like religious/language differences or variations in culinary taste. It’s in the little things you don’t notice till they’re gone, or the subtleties that people can describe to you but you don’t understand until you’ve lived them. I’m still bridging the gaps.