“Hello, I wonder if you can give me two packets of...emmm...to...tomato...tomato sauce please?” Standing beside the cashier desk of Hardie’s, I asked a waitress in a hesitant tone.
Unexpectedly, instead of passing me what I thought I had asked for, she looked at me with a frown and replied, “Sir, I’m sorry...but what do you want exactly? Could you tell me again please?”
Thinking this small accident was caused by a lack of experience of the waitress, I raised my volume without any doubt of myself and said, “Just tomato sauce, you know, that red sauce people use to eat fries. Yeah, look, just like that one on the sauce table, but I want some small packets of it to take away with me.”
Right after listening to my explanation, she laughed so hard for several seconds that she even tried to hide her face behind the computer screen due to a feeling of inappropriateness. Later, perhaps it was because she saw my embarrassed and confused face, she tried very best to limit her expression in front of me and asked, “well, I think what you mean is ketchup, right?”
I stood there with my mind empty for a moment after realizing how stupid I was to make that simple mistake, then I started smiling constrainedly to her and nodded my head. After she grabbed a couple of ketchup packets and placed them on the desk, I took two of them hastily and walked out of Hardie’s as fast as I could. As soon as I pushed open the door, I suddenly felt a light and cool breeze together with small drops of rain flicking on my face. Surprisingly, instead of feeling relieved from that nervous moment inside the restaurant, a weird sense of isolation emerged inside my mind. “Alright... It seems that no matter how much I’ve tried, in the end there will still be many fundamental differences between the old world I lived in and the new world that I am currently in.”
By then I had stayed in the United States (since September) for a little over two months. Just in these seventy days alone I suffered a lot from the divergence of thinking trends and ways of expression between the Chinese and the Americans. To be more specific, the way my families think and talk differed significantly and that led to much depression and confusion.
For my family in America, I first couldn't understand why members tend to speak in a religious way even on some topics that involved mostly modern concepts. It in fact seemed foolish to me at first. Days before when I was discussing a catastrophic explosion that happened in China that was reported on the news at both the local and international level, as usual, I came up with a series of questions to ask my American and Chinese parents. When I asked, “Why did such a large amount of oil explode in the center of a large city like Qingdao result in a relatively low mortality rate?”
Instead of replying “Because most people were at work in a stable building and only a few people were on the street walking, therefore there was a lower possibility for a large amount of people to be killed. However, if it happenened in morning around 8a.m., this might be a totally different case then,” as my parents in China did, my American mom rather said in an ebullient tone, “Emmm...You see, that’s a great miracle that shows Jesus loves and takes care of us at all times. You remember a similar story in the Bible you just learnt one week ago, just the one in John about how Jesus saved people from a boat in a storm? Oh, how amazing God is! I think you can understand him better now, right?” Looking at her eyes full of hope to be approved, I could do nothing but nod my head like I had been doing for a few weeks, even though I was feeling nearly desperate in my mind. The support of her explanation was too absolute for a non-religious young Chinese exchange student to accept. Instead of thinking about the key principles of my mom’s statement, my focus point was at the weakness of my American mom’s argument and therefore I did not pay too much attention to it at that time.
On the other hand my Chinese parents caused me to be in despair at times as well for making their statements too abstract in form. In some extreme cases I could not understand or prove their points or theories even if I tried to think about them deliberately for a few days. About one or two weeks before, after I read a part of a news article about the early adulthood of many affluent men who decided to quit college and start their ownbusinesses, I asked another critical question to my parents in both countries, “Why do people with disadvantages over others sometimes reach a better outcome?” As soon as my dad in China heard this matter, he explained to me with a confident tone, “Actually, I think two unique qualities — they both love what they are currently doing and take deep concern about all the people around them — this contributes the most to their success. Remember what I told you before? I graduated from a small college in a place in the middle of nowhere, but now I have more than ten doctors from the top universities all over the world working for me. You wonder why? I just showed proper respect to them and made them understand that I am enthusiastic about what I am doing, and that’s it!”
While my father kept talking endlessly on the other side of the phone, I lied quietly on the couch with my empty eyes staring at the white ceiling. “What does he really mean? What does he mean by showing real “love” to what he is doing? And how could that and concerns for other people be related to a person’s success in the future?” Thousands of mysteries appeared in my mind and I got tired of thinking about it. In fact for me, I would consider the response provided by my American mom that “God loves every one the same but with different ways” easier to understand and accept. Perhaps that’s basically because the feeling of uncertainty contained in the statement about God in fact provided me more space for my naive imagination.
With these clashes of differences continuing to happen, the sense of strangeness and insulation I felt became stronger and stronger. “Why were the explanations provided by them so distinct from one another? Which one is more reasonable or should be accepted? What could I learn or understand from their words?” These three questions were the ones I wondered about the most during that time period. And since there wasn't really anyone that could understand my exact feelings in the United States at that time (to fully understand my situation and give me advice required the historical background of the two families and also the ability to understand both Chinese and English. As many have heard or experienced before, the translation of a language usually distorts the original meaning to a certain degree), I couldn't really do anything except suppress my negative feelings as much as I could and keep moving on.
Luckily, not too much time later, a conversation between my mother in the U.S. and me helped me to find out an ideal point of view to deal with the gap between the two distinctive usages of language. It was an early afternoon in spring and I had just got back from Granite City Community Care Center after doing volunteer work the whole morning. Because of the tiring work in the morning, I chose to sit in an office chair beside my mom with a cup of tea and watch her edit pictures on her computer. Though I tried my best to keep my eyes on the screen since I was also a photographer who was eagerly looking forward to learning new editing skills, I could not prevent myself from keeping my attention on a familiar encounter in the morning rather than on those photos. The person I met was a poor lady who always wore a dirty green sweater and came to the Center for food on every Tuesday. Accoding to the employees at the Center, she had a master’s degree from St.Louis University and worked as a manager in a factory located in Granite City before 2010. Right after the factory went broke, she was kicked out of her house because of her inability to pay her loans. As a matter of fact, I had met her three times and I never stopped feeling bad for her when I saw her hollow eyes and wrinkled hands. While the scene of the encounter reappeared in my mind, I could not stop a question from jumping out of my mouth. “Mom, you always say that everything is related to the love and grace of God. But why does that woman we met in the Center live in such unhappiness? And why didn't God help her out? She surely has potential to achieve way more than that!” I asked her with an intensive tone.
“Oh, my boy... Calm down first...You think that situation was difficult to be interpreted, right? Let me explain that for you. You see, if God wasn't there protecting her, then how could she meet us in the Helping Center which has been providing enough food to sustain her living for the past four years?” She talked slowly and spelled every word clearly and precisely with an incontrovertible sense. And it almost made me decide to accept her point of view.
But only seconds later, I realized again that what she said was not convincing to me. “But... As you always say, the love and care of God is put on people. But is that really important or is God even true overall?” I asked mom again with a bit hesitation, since it would be considered as rude and not respectful to argue in this way.
“Well, well... it seems you haven't change a bit in your way of thinking. Let’s see, how about you treat God as a catalyst of transmitting love and goodness? You see, because of their deep trust in God, many people in the world today would like to share some love and hope with other people in need. And those in need, the recipients of love and goodness who believed in God, would consider the gain as responses from God, thus they would be more likely to become optimistic and work harder in the future. For many of these recipients, one day they will eventually become a donor of love and continue this circle. Emmm...It’s a rather complicated answer, but does it make you understand better now?” In stead of getting annoyed and angry about my questions, mom looked at me and spoke with a slight smile on her face.
With my head nodding slowly and steadily, I realized that I had neglected the key idea of my mother’s way of speaking in the past. It is definitely true that its overly religious form made many of her point seem unreasonable on the surface, but really what mattered and what I needed to focus on was its original purpose—to encourage the transmissions of love.
With the idea of “love of God” involved, more and more people would tend to share their love with others and in the end every individual would receive much more love from others eventually. Suddenly, those statements of my dad in China were back to my mind. The idea he mentioned about the importance of loving others and one’s work became clear and reasonable for me from that moment. If a person would treat himself as a resource of love, he would not only benefit those who receive his love, but also ultimately benefit himself. “Right, deep in the center of those very diverse ways of speech, it is clear that their meanings are the same. How foolish and naive I used to be!” I muttered to myself and soon continued thinking.
Now when I look back at those struggles I experienced about the forms of language of my two families, I constantly laugh because of the humor revealed from the two extremes of different forms of linguistic expression. But meanwhile I also appreciate the preciousness of them because they have given me the opportunity of thinking deliberately about the importance of love from the perspectives of individuals and society. Yes, no matter how different in form their forms of expressions were, their key ideas of promoting love transmissions would never be distorted.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.