English as Cultural Exchange

“What sauce would you like for your pasta?”

“Marijuana sauce, please!”


After my friend kindly reminded me of the difference between Marijuana and Marinara, I hoped to disappear immediately from the dining hall. My face flushed, and my back sweated. This is me, a Chinese girl who embarrassed myself millions of times in the American culture.

I have been learning English for eleven years and made tons of embarrassing mistakes like this, but as my English improved, I became more and more amazed with learning the American culture that is embedded in the language. From “marijuana,” I learned the widespread of drugs and the potentially high level of social pressure in society. But with “marinara,” I enjoyed the food that originated from Italian and realized the close connection between America, Britain, and the European countries. Mistakes make us grow.

While I was growing up, I have encountered many elders who worried that young kids like me might lose interest in our traditional culture, being unrespectful to Confusions’ advice, but as I dive into English study, I encourage Chinese youngsters to master English, as they can absorb the essence from multiple cultures and train themselves better human beings, instead of abandoning the mother culture. As the old Chinese saying goes, “absorb the merits of others to enrich their own/博采众家之长.”

For example, Chinese culture highly values filial piety in each family, whereas the US appreciates more on individualism and logic. In Chinese, there is the word “乖(guai),” which is usually said by parents to their kids. However, in English, there is no direct translation. If I were to try, Guai means listening to parents’ commands no matter if they provide concrete reasoning to their kids or not. Since what exists in language reveals the emphasis of culture in the society, the creation of the word “Guai” implies the strict requirement of respect to parents in the traditional Chinese society, that parents are like the authority in the family, and children cannot disobey their orders or requests.

I am not devaluing filial piety– it is indeed a foundation of Chinese culture and a system that regulates society. However, when it reaches the extreme side, tragedy might happen. “Liang Zhu,” a traditional Chinese love story, describes how a young boy and girl fell in love but finally suicide because of parents’ disapproval. Since in English there are no such words as Guai, learning English can help blur the obedience in families. As I speak more English, I would value more of my personal feelings in front of my parents and argue for respect based on logical reasoning.

Additionally, the different versions of “you” in Asian languages also noted social hierarchy. In Chinese, there are “你(ni)” and “您(nin),” with “ni” referring to friends or those that are younger than you, and “nin” refers to elders and authorities. In Korean, the hierarchy in greetings is more outstanding. Even “hi” has five different versions for people at different social levels relative to yourself. Messing up with the politeness of language may cause considerable problems in daily communication, forming a relatively aggressive and rude image in front of the public.

In contrast, in English, “you” can refer to everyone, whether they are professors, authorities, friends, or children. The lack of difference in language between different social hierarchies reminds me of the equality between each other that everyone’s opinion is valuable. It was challenging and uncomfortable for me to call my professor “you” when I came to the US in the first year. However, I discovered that the universal “you” assisted me in getting rid of the fear of speaking up in class, and gradually I am able to deliver my opinion structurally. Professors and students can develop friendships, which is rarely discovered in China.

Although some may say that learning English harms the preservation of the Chinese language and culture and that the young generation will forget about the elders’ wisdom, I would consider English as a medium to spread Chinese culture to global citizens so that it gains eternity. English has a growing influence because its vocabulary has infiltrated so many other languages, importing words from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Chinese, and many others. The fixed expression “Long Time No See” has its Chinese origin, matching with the expression “好久不见.” The Chinese Daoism “Yin” and “Yang” are adopted in the English language as well, illustrating through “Taichi” to a broader audience around the world. Not to mention the “Confucius Institute,” the cultural promotion organization that spread traditional Chinese wisdom to the global citizen. English is acting as a medium for Chinese people to deliver our culture worldwide and bring more audiences to appreciate Chinese history, philosophy, and values. They did not disappear but were preserved through English.

Exploring English to me is like observing cultural conflict and debate in mind. It is a process of reformation in mind, which will bring us enrichment.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store