I went to the U.S. for the first time in June of 1970. I hoped I would be able to speak English in no time. I was nineteen. Shortly after, I attended Palomar Junior College in San Marcos. The following is an excerpt from one of my stories. I was in the cafeteria waiting for my turn to place an order.
"Next! What would you like, young lady?" a waitress says to me, holding a yellow pencil in her left hand.
"Hamburger and 7-up, please," I say.
"Would you like a hamburger or a cheeseburger?" she says with a broad smile.
The waitress looks like Alice, the housekeeper of the Brady Bunch. Over the counter, a male cook picks up a stainless-steel spatula and turns over hamburger patties. It makes a sizzling sound. He hurries to put a piece of bright yellow cheese on top of each patty. It looks yummy. Those hamburgers must come with cheese or without cheese. The sizzling sound goes down.
"Hamburger and cheese and 7-up, please," I say.
"Do you want a hamburger or cheeseburger?" she says looking into my eyes.
I feel my face blush and my heart begin pounding. People are waiting behind me. I have to hurry up. Maybe I should use the word "with" instead of "and" because a piece of cheese melt and stick with a patty like a mother holding her child's hand.
"Hamburger with cheese, please," I say.
"Do you want a hamburger?" the waitress says making her chin double.
People must be staring at me. I told myself I must hurry up.
"A cheeseburger?" she says without changing her tone.
I wonder what difference a cheeseburger and a hamburger with cheese make. I can recognize burger and cheeseburger as a pair, and hamburger and cheesehamburger can also be a pair, but the pair of hamburger and cheeseburger throws me off. I thought English was logical. Maybe her mind works in a different way because she is left handed. I hadn't had any friends or acquaintances that were using their left hand except my grandfather. My grandfather used a pair of scissors with his left hand and wrote using his right hand.
"What would you like to drink, dear?" the waitress says as though nobody was behind me.
"7-up, please," I say.
"What?" she says.
I wish I would be able to pronounce 7-up like Americans. I'm disappointed and frustrated, but I don't know what to do about it. My brain goes into an inactive mode like a dead person. I want to go home and take a nap.
The scene above was almost 40 years ago. The following scene is from March 2009 at a Subway in San Dimas. I gave an order of a six-inch Subway combo with Italian herb bread.
"No pickles, please," I say to a young female worker.
"Would you like Jalapenos?" she says to me.
"No, no Jalapeno, please," I say.
"Would you like pepper chinos?" she says picking up a few strips of yellow pickles. She drops them on my sandwich.
"No, no. No pickles, please."
She drops the yellow strips back into the bin. I had the similar conversation at the place every time I went in to place my order. I chatted with most of the workers there. They recognized my face but not my preference of without pickles. One day, I went there late. I was the only customer. I thought this was a good opportunity to explain myself if they asked me again.
"You don't like pickles, do you?" a male worker says to me with a smile.
"I love pickles, but lately I can't eat too sour foods. It bothers my skin." I say, "Please, no pickles."
"Okay," he says smiling. "Do you want Jalapenos? Jalapeno is not pickles."
"No Jalapeno. Pickles mean processed vegetables with either salted water or vinegar," I say and point to the bin of fresh cucumbers, "That's fresh cucumber slices, but over there, pickled cucumber. You know what I mean? Those jalapenos or pepper chinos are also pickles."
We went into more detail about pickles, and we burst into laughter. We began using the word "family." The family of pickles. I thought I finally achieved my goal in communication. But my next visit, my situation went back to the way it used to be.
While I was writing this blog, I thought about Amy Tan's recent blog. It was about salutations and valedictions. As mentioned in the blog, I also felt "regards" stiff at the end of a personal email. And by chance, I've been using "best" also, but as "Best." Her "best" came from "best wishes," but mine came from "Best regards." I thought this interesting.
This may not be a big deal to readers, but obviously we think a bit differently. Because I'm not a native speaker, I probably think one word at a time and often miss some words. Maybe, native speakers have a pictorial association of "best wishes" as in greeting cards. Kanji (Chinese characters) users like me also have pictorial associations in our language, but my instinct tells me I probably don't have much of that in alphabet. To me, the "best" of "best regards" or "best wishes" is the same word and gives me a similar feeling. How about you?
I talked about cheeseburger, pickles, and best. Now I must jump back to cheeseburger again. I associate cheeseburger to a brilliant comedian, John Belushi. In "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" he played a cheeseburger cook. He shouted, "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger!" no matter what customers, other cooks, or waitresses said. I love that sketch and the John Belushi character.
Almost forty years has passed since my cheeseburger scene. I used to think I've made my progress. But the pickles scene and the matter about "best" are sending me back to my original question. No, I still cannot figure out how others think. What do you think?