Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How are you? part deux or My two worlds

I came to this country with my family as a teenager. In the Old Country, when someone asked you how you were, they expected an actual answer. So, predictably, each one of us did our best to answer the question all these nice people were asking-- "how are you?" -- in our broken English, with our heavy accents. Do you know how hard it is to accomplish that when your vocabulary is rather limited and you also have to remember to put each word in a correct place in a sentence? Right. This probably explains why none of us turned out to be quick learners on this-- I think we mistook the questioner's discomfort for working hard to understand us.

I don't remember who finally clued us in to the fact that nobody expects you to actually answer, but I do remember feeling disappointed and vaguely betrayed by the discovery.

The only caveat being that it wasn't quite all of us-- my sister Adelynne (thanks for coming up with your own pseudonym, btw-- less work for me :)) wasn't old enough to be affected by this particular drama. So, to use a fancy psychology term, our schema were shattered, while hers wasn't. Which is probably why she can, as she described in her comment on the first post, decide to answer completely truthfully at all times, thus consciously messing with people who were just going about their daily routine.

Me? I think my poor old schema can't take another remodeling job. Instead, I live in two worlds. When asked in the Old Country language, I almost always answer truthfully, although not always completely or at length. When asked in English, I gut check to see whether this is a social nicety or an actual question. So you see, sometimes with me "Ok" is an actual answer, and sometimes it is the quickest way out.


niobe said...

What do people say in the Old Country as a kind of conventional greeting? Obviously, it's not something equivalent to "how are you?"

But there must be some kind of standard small talk that no-one expects a real answer to -- like "I hear it's supposed to rain this weekend." Or am I letting my cultural biases show?

Sara said...

When I lived abroad, people often mentioned the American custom of saying "How are you?" as an incredibly annoying trait. I responded that it certainly beat out the Russian and Israeli customs of shouting and shoving you out of the way. I'm kidding, but seriously, everywhere I've traveled there are norms of behavior that seem so rude to the unfamiliar, but aren't necessarily.

Lori said...

You know, on the flip side, I'm not sure I would want to feel as though I always have to give my full assessment of "how I am" anytime anyone asked. I guess I am just so used to our American/Western shallowness, that I actually find a little comfort in it at times. Sometimes it really is easier for me to just say, "Fine thanks." than to have to really evaluate how I am feeling and what is going on in my life.

Interesting perspective. I would love to hear more about how you might respond to someone's inquiry in the Old Country. Would you really tell them about your loss and your sadness? And if so, how would they respond? I guess I am just wondering if there really is another culture out there that handles and responds to loss so much better than ours does (it wouldn't be hard).

Julia said...

Niobe, the conventional greeting is any of the various ways to say Hello or Hi. The small talk thing.. I don't know. Maybe "you look great." You can say that even if you are lying :).

Sara, :) :) :). We certainly all like our own strange customs more than anyone else's. I find that Israelis, for example, have very different requirements for personal space, living space, and noise level than what we are used to here. So I think our adoptive countries certainly also make a heavy imprint on us as well. I am a chimera at this point, I am sure.

Lori, it's not that that culture is necessarily better at dealing with loss, at least not the loss of babies. I could tell you stories about that. It's just that people won't ask how you are unless they want to know. So no clerk is going to ask you, and not many casual acquaintances. But, like I said above, I am a chimera now, so I do appreciate the ability to not really be honest with everyone who asks.

kate said...

Hi Julia....i saw your comment on my blog and i wanted to say welcome and also i am very sorry for your loss. It is always sad to see a new blogger, and a new baby who is no longer with us. I hope you will be able to find some consolation in sharing your experiences with us...

Oh, by the way, i was born here but my parents emigrated from the Old Country too (probably not the same one but sounds like it was kind of close!) I hate the 'how are you', myself. What ever happened to a simple 'Hello'?