Welcome to the CLA Classroom! These posts are designed to give an insider’s perspective on CLA (Culture and Language Acquisition) in Asia-Pacific. What does it feel like to be a foreigner in this country? What new sights and sounds assail us every day? How do people view us? How do we react to cultural differences? Be our guest and step with us into this jungle of new experiences!
Can you think of anything more simple than exchanging a, “Hello, how are you?” with a passing friend or acquaintance? It’s something as basic as this that contributes to our culture stress in Asia-Pacific.
It wasn’t a big deal during the first few weeks. That was when we were relying on Google Translate to carry us through our social encounters. Whatever Google told us, we used it. We didn’t know any better then.
Enter, language tutors.
We’ve now discovered there are varying levels of formality based on which pronoun we choose to use. Thankfully, the first question in the greeting doesn’t require a pronoun. Literally, this question is translated, “What’s the news?” So…whenever possible, we try to beat the other person to the punch: “Halo, apa kabar?” However, it wouldn’t be polite for someone to just answer, “Fine.” Social custom requires the response, “Fine. And you?”
Assuming we are the lucky ones who have to respond to the greeting, this is where the pronouns get tricky. As far as we have learned, we have six choices of 2nd person pronouns based on gender, age, closeness of acquaintance, assumption, and/or flattery. By choosing the wrong pronoun, we could inadvertently offend a stranger by assuming too much familiarity; on the other hand, we could also accidentally offend a friend by donning excessive formality. We could mistakenly call a young man by the pronoun for a young woman, or vice versa. We could mortally offend a youngish woman by referring to her as a “mother” (when in doubt, assume she’s younger!).
Our friends here in Asia-Pacific may think we aren’t too bright when they ask a simple question like, “What’s the news?” and get no response but a momentary blank stare. But if they realized what a frenzy of mental churning is occurring behind that blank stare, they would certainly extend a little sympathy.