What is an American Handshake?

A colleague posted this on FB, and I must admit I had to laugh at the underwear reference.

I also chuckled at the various “American handshakes” and thought of the awkward, funny cross-cultural breaches of etiquette that can happen on a daily basis.

Growing up my younger sister never called me by my first name. To this day, the only time I hear her call me “Kathy” is when she is introducing me to someone. She calls me “Uhn-nee” – the Korean word for older sister.

We were taught that calling someone who is older by their first name was disrespectful, so we never called a grown-up by their first name. Family friends were simply known as “So-and-so’s mom/dad”. Even in college I had moments of panic when a TA would introduce themselves by their first name. So when I took my first job I was horrified at the thought of calling my editors Roger, Joanne & Diane. I have this little issue with doing the right thing the right way, but clearly living and growing up in the midst of two cultures has a way of blurring the lines.

As a parent I still feel the tension. Our kids are another generation out, but we’ve taught the boys to refer to their older sister as “Noo-nah” – the Korean word a younger brother uses to refer to and call his older sister, and Elias will often call his older brother “Hyung” – the Korean word a younger brother uses to refer to his older brother. Elias once asked why no one calls him anything special. I guess “Hey, Elias” doesn’t count.

But what those B-school international students were learning and laughing about the American Handshake feels different if you take the point of view of an American. My kids are Americans. They may choose to identify themselves as hyphenated Americans (Korean- or Asian-), and they most certainly hear us refer to our family that way. But, by virtue of birth (and I have the birth certificates to prove it) they are Americans so do the family traditions they have grown up with and possibly choose to pass down to another generation continue to change what is “American”? 

I know. Deep thoughts for a gloomy Tuesday morning. Maybe I’ve been reading and hearing too many comments about “preserving the American way of life”. Can someone tell me what that means?

1 Comment

  1. Grace October 25, 2009

    I’ve felt similarly being black & white. Jeez it can be confusing. As for your question, I don’t know what it means to “preserve the American way of life,” except to mean anything else than ‘let’s just keep being rich & in power.’ I have issues…clearly. 🙂


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