Sweet Talk

by Karen Zhang

It happens too often that I am always greeted endearingly at an American restaurant. The minute I sit down, a usually middle-aged Caucasian woman comes to me, menu in hand and says, “How’re you today, honey?” The first time I heard it, it caught me off guard. Why would a stranger call me “honey”? My Chinese parents would hardly call me “honey.” The second time I heard it I was still in shock. The third time, the endearment stuck out annoyingly but I began to accept it. The fourth, the fifth and more times onward, I must have grown into the ultra-friendly American culture.

The longer I stay in a restaurant, I realize all customers are entitled “honey” or “sweetheart.” It really depends on the servers how to differentiate one endearment from another. By the end of the day, I wonder how many sweethearts the waitress will have served.

“How’s everything, sweetheart?” a server usually comes to me and inquires in the middle of my meal, with a lusciously rising tone on the last word. A flat “fine” is often the most genuine reply I can give. Her passionate diminutive will not cease.

“Do you want more water, sweetie?” she may asks, a pitcher of iced water in hand.

“No,” I say plainly, adding “thanks” as a sudden reminder.

After I pay the bill, she probably will send me her one last juicy farewell—“Thank you very much, sweetheart! I hope you have a wooon-derrr-ful day.”

I certainly will—after hearing a sugar-coated voice chanting throughout my meal. Imagine if I were a lonely customer, how much more those endearing words would have made my day. At least, foolishly speaking, I am a sweetheart to a stranger!

But no way will I have the guts to translate word for word the sweet greetings to my Chinese family who know no English. I am not surprised that my dad may find the diminutives offensive or my cousin-in-law will get jealous of the server calling her husband “honey.” Despite Chinese society becoming more westernized, it’s still not easy for many Chinese couples to say “I love you” in public; whereas in America itself, I’ve heard these three words too many times out of the mouth of anyone. Are Americans too lovingly manifested or are Chinese too discreet about sweet talk? Whatever it is, I hope I don’t need to call my server “sweetheart” in return to get her attention to serve me.

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