I believe that every international student will experience different kinds of culture shock as soon as he sets foot on the soil of the United States. One problem is interpreting American small talk. As I come from an Oriental country, China, I often find it confusing.
When I first came to the United States. I was amazed to hear and felt that it was a task for me to use the words, "Thank you!" or "Thanks a lot!" In the grocery store, the clerks would say these words to me after I finished paying for what I had bought. At the loan desk of a library, the librarians would say them to me, as soon as they passed me the books. On these occasions, I sometimes would be a little embarrassed, for I did not know that people used these words more to show their politeness than really to thank you. Even when I understood these words, I still felt uncomfortable when I tried to use them. When I was ready to get off a bus, I would say to the driver,"Thank you!" Whenever I uttered these words, I would have such an uncomfortable feeling. In China, we do not use these words very often. We usually give a smile to the people who have offered us some favor. Normally we say, "Thank you!" only when we really and sincerely appreciate the people who help us a lot. Otherwise, a smile is enough.
In the first few weeks after I arrived here, I could not fully get the meaning of "How are you?" and "I am fine." These words may be the most frequently used words by Americans as a conversational greeting. When you run into an acquaintance somewhere, he would greet you by saying, "How are you?" In response you would say, "I am fine." But actually you might not be fine. You probably wanted to say something else from the heart. Even if you were possibly afflicted with some illness, or you were going to die, you still said, "I am fine." You would not tell people about your sadness or your trouble. Why? I guess that people do not want to know about you. These are just greeting words. In this way, these are quite similar to our greeting words in China. In the morning, on the street or in the hallway, we say, "Have you had breakfast?" At noon, we say, "Have you had lunch?" During the evening, " . . . dinner?" Whether we have or not, we will say, "Yes." But actually it has little relation with your having or not having the meals. It is simply a greeting. In China, when anyone inquires, "How are you?" it means he really shows a concern for you, he wants to get some information about you, and he is ready to help you if he can. After I came to the United States, I had a hard time adjusting myself in this strange country. I was so homesick and depressed that I was sick. But, when people asked me, "How are you?" still I had to reply, "I am fine."
American people use the words "Excuse me!" on many occasions. When an American wants to pass by somebody who is close, the American will say, "Excuse me!" But in China we seldom say so on this occasion. When this happens, we just keep going without saying anything. We only use these words when we have offended somebody and want to make a strong apology to the person for the offense. For instance, when we bump into someone's body or someone accidentally knocks us down, we will say "Excuse me!" Sometimes as we are squeezing our way through a crowd and people there have to make room for us, we probably say these words. But most of the time, we say, "Let me go," with a smiling face, or we just go without saying anything. As for sneezing or yawning in public, we never say, "Excuse me!" But in America, people have to say "Excuse me!" Since I come from a rather warm place, the cold weather here always makes me sneeze. When I to do so, I have a hard time deciding whether to say "Excuse me!" or not. If I say "Excuse me!" I will feel rather ill at ease. If I do not, I will be afraid of being impolite to others who are near to me.
Since these small words are used very frequently in everyday life here, Chinese students who are in the United States should understand and try to use small talk such as "Thank you!" "Excuse me" and "How are you!" Then we will feel comfortable when we are in these situations.
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation.
Contributors retain all rights to their work.