I remember his question well.
One morning I walked to our neighborhood post office in Taipei to take the language exam I liked to call “mailing a package.” I got in the line leading to a clerk with whom I was familiar, practiced and prepped for answering what he would ask me—things like “Where is your package going?” or “What’s inside the box?”
Instead, he glanced at me and said nonchalantly, “Have you eaten?”
What? Did I look gaunt and hungry? Was he prying into my daily schedule? Was he inviting me to share a snack? Was the post office a food-free zone and he’d seen some crumbs on my shirt?
While I remember the question, I don’t remember what I said in return. As he’d caught me off guard, my guess is that my reply was incoherent at best (F for the exam). It wasn’t until later that I found out that “Have you eaten?” is simply a local way to say Hello, particularly among the older generations. (“I’ve eaten” or “Not yet” suffice for responses, with no need for elaboration or fact checking.)
I wish I could say that was the only time I was confused by a greeting in Taiwan. Yeah, I wish.
Another one that tripped me up was the first few times I heard someone call out “Huan ying guang lin!” when I entered a store. The literal translation is akin to “A happy welcome to the arrival of your bright light!” I couldn’t make out the individual words, and to me it sounded as if people were making a valiant attempt at English and were saying “Good morning” to me no matter the time of day. Good for them, I thought, with a smile. At least they were trying.
And then there are the Chinese non-verbals. There’s the slight downward nod of the head, which is equally suitable at a restaurant to acknowledge the waiter who’s come to take your order or at the airport to welcome home a close family member who’s returned from a year abroad. And I’d be remiss if I left out the highly nuanced two-handed exchange of business cards.
Those people and their funny ways.
Of course, we English speakers in the West are “those people,” too. How hard it must be for English learners to navigate our greetings landscape. We have our “What’s up?” (up where?), “What’s happening? (to whom?)” “Howdy! (short for “How do you do?”—but do what?), and “How’s it going? (how’s what going where?). And that’s not to mention “Whazzup?” “Wassup?” “Sup?” “S’appenin’?” “Look what the cat dragged in,” or “Speak of the devil!”
We have our non-verbals, as well: the hand shake, the high five, the fist bump, the hug, the side hug, and the hand shake into a half hug.
So here’s the place where I say—What about your host culture? Do they have interesting, intricate, or confusing-to-expat ways of saying hello? Did they catch you off guard the first time you encountered them? Or maybe you caught the locals off guard with your ways of saying Hi. As we greet the new year, I invite you to share with us your experiences with greetings in the comments below.
But . . . a too-late search of the archives of A Life Overseas shows me that Rachel Pieh Jones did something just like that a few years ago. (Oh, internet search box, why do you torment me so?) In fact, some more frantic searching shows me that back when I asked readers to offer up their odd-food experiences, I was again following in Rachel’s footsteps.
So you can still leave your comments here if you’d like. Or you can just head over to “Hello World!” to read that list of submissions and join in there. And don’t worry if you find out that you’re repeating what somebody else has already written. That happens sometimes.
[photo: “HI sparklers,” by Julie Lane, used under a Creative Commons license]