When I first heard people say “bless you” after one sneezed, I experienced “culture shock,” but just a little, and it was subtle. After I heard “bless you” millions of times, I realized that I tended to ignore it and say nothing to sneezes in my home country.
Being in a brand new country and environment for me is challenging yet interesting. During the first couple of days when I was here in the United States, I often compared things I observed and experienced to things I had experienced back in my country. The breakfast is cold here; I had hot wonton soup (dumplings in English) during high school. I used to complain about the very fact that every morning, in the same breakfast restaurant, I would eat the same breakfast. Now, I just want it one more time. I want to see the green, fresh cilantro and the white, round wonton dough mixed with pinky filling. When you take a small bite, you feel the most satisfaction you could ever imagine.
This is the fourth time I’m here in the United States, and recently I broke my record for longest stay, a month. Being outside of my home and inside a foreign country — even though I am no longer the five-year-old me who was afraid of things unknown — still triggers that string that deeply dwells in my heart, the string of anxiety mixed with anticipation.
It was different from the nervousness I had when I first presented my little craft in front of the classroom when I was little.
It was different from the anticipation I had about meeting new people on my first day of high school.
Instead, it was a mix of emotions, and the only thing I feared was the “fact” that I don’t belong to this place, a place where I hardly found any similarity to my hometown, and a place that reminds me of my hometown every time I breathe. The diverse environment creates a temporary shelter for me to find similarity within all the differences. However, it was still weird when I started to think about the very fact that I was and am prepared for this.
I spent my last high school summer vacation as a tutor and teaching English (TOEFL) to students that were three years younger than me. Often, they asked me about a particular vocabulary word; with the smile of “finally got you,” they questioned my vocabulary knowledge. Their smiles disappeared when they found out I actually knew the words, and they would say that I was awesome and amazing. Even though I replied that they would someday be like me or even better, they still didn’t believe it.
However, the truth is that I was thinking about the same issue years before, when I was sitting in the classroom waiting for the foreign teacher and reciting the vocabulary list that took ages for me to remember. The truth is that I remember preparing for study abroad in a foreign country years ago, rushing through the buildings to find the interviewer at my international high school, waiting for the result.
Every day, I wake up and stare at the ceiling for an ephemeral second, questioning the place where I am. Everything is surreal. It took me 16 hours to get here, and I spent 18 years — 18 years to become qualified to understand this language.
Yet 18 years failed to teach me “bless you.” However, the bilingual, diverse environment I’m savoring right now is what I pursued in the past. People with different colors say hi to each other, share ideas while listening to various perspectives, and become friends.
Besides the culture shocks I’ve experienced from the past three times I was here, the sun, the sky, and the night are the same back in my home. In the end, when my roommate says how much she misses home when her home is just a 2-hours drive, I smile slightly, not because she is homesick, but for the fact that we are the same.
I first said “Bless you!” to a stranger in one of my classes. I was nervous but kept telling myself that it’s culturally normal in America and my pronunciation is clear. A couple of seconds later, I thought I saw the warmest smile that I’ve ever received in this foreign place. “Thank you!” She is not a really pretty girl, but I thought she was so beautiful in that moment. Maybe it was because of the sunshine piercing through her blond hair that reminded me of my happy times with my high school friends, and that it was the same sunshine I saw on my friends, and the only thing I saw was the yellow and golden lights, so warm and shiny.
Taylor Zhang is a first year student at Smith College.