Category Archives: culture

Watch Out! It’s April Fool’s Day Again

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

Last year I wrote about April Fool’s Day. A lot of countries around the world enjoy this holiday, even though there is usually no time off for it. Because it is already April 1 in Australia, Japan, etc., you can already read about this year’s April Fool’s Day Jokes at Wikipedia. Which one do you think is funniest? I’m going to wait until I can read all of them.

No one is sure how April Fool’s Day got started. Some people say it’s because the European calendar was changed in the 1500s, and people who didn’t change their calendar to the new way were “April fools.” Other people think it comes from even older holidays or traditions. It’s probably related to the vernal equinox (the first day of spring, in late March). This day was a joyful holiday in many ancient cultures. We’ll probably never know exactly where it comes from, but it will probably be popular for a long time. People love to play jokes on each other.

The main Wikipedia page about April Fool’s Day tells us about some actual events that caused problems on April Fool’s Day. In 1946, there was a big earthquake on April Fool’s Day. It affected Hawaii and Alaska. More than 150 people died. Some say that people didn’t listen to the tsunami warnings because it was April 1.

If you hear anything shocking on April 1, be careful: you can’t be sure if it’s true or not.

(P. S. Did you read the Harry Potter books? The twins, Fred and George Weasley, have their birthdays on April 1.)

Subway Terms

Our reader Dmitry wrote to ask about subway words. Dmitry, if you are confused about American subway terms, I think that’s not surprising! Only a few cities in the US have subways, so most Americans don’t live near one. (I didn’t live in an area with a subway or metro until I was 21 years old and moved to California.) As a result, we don’t use subway-related words very often. To confirm my guesses, I asked some of my friends to find out what words they use. Some people had firm answers. Other people weren’t sure. And some people said “I’ve never gone on a subway, so I don’t know!”

BART Train exterior drawing by SteveLambert at

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we have several public transportation systems run by different counties and cities. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a kind of light rail line. Sometimes the trains go underground, like subways, and sometimes they go above ground. I live near a BART station which is also a transit hub: several different bus lines and bus systems stop at this station.

Dmitry also asked about the connection between two subway stations.

If it’s underground, I would call it a “tunnel.” I might say “Going through the tunnels while riding on BART makes me nervous, because I’m worried about earthquakes.” If I am looking at a subway map, I might say “section.” However, my friend who works in public transportation says it’s a “line.” But we rarely need to use these words for subways, because in most cases we would just say “It’s 3 minutes from the Fremont station to the Union City station.”

Dmitry also asked about stations where you can change lines. Most of my American friends said that this is a “transfer point” or “transfer station.” However, we all agree that usually we use the verb form here: “You should transfer from the Richmond line to the Pittsburg line at Macarthur Station.” Some of my friends who speak more British-style English said that they would say “interchange,” but that’s not common in the USA. We all feel that a “hub” is either 1) a central station where a lot of subway lines meet, or b) a station where different systems connect, such as the bus, the trolley, and the subway.

If you need to use these words in conversation, find out what the local people call these things. If you need to use these words in writing or outside the US, don’t worry about it. Your meaning will probably be clear from the context.

I hope this answers Dmitry’s question! Thanks for asking.

Valentine’s Day in the USA: 3 Good Sites

After the last post about Valentine’s Day, maybe you’d like to learn more about how it’s celebrated in the US.

Rose image by johnny_automatic at

Here are three websites that describe Valentine’s Day. Each site is very different, but all of them are interesting.

  1. This ESL Valentine’s Day Lesson is a great place to start. It has three pages, with pictures, and it’s a good introduction to Valentine’s Day. It’s easy to read.

  2. For an interesting look at the business side of the holiday, the big card company American Greetings has posted an article called The Business of Valentine’s Day, which includes statistics and other information. The level of this article is advanced, written in a news-media style.

  3. Finally, the History Channel (an American cable TV channel) has a huge Valentine’s Day site, including history, videos, quizzes, and more. (Watch out! If you click on the Valentine Videos page, it’ll start to play the video–with sound–right away. So don’t try it at work…) This website is also mostly at an advanced level. Some of the content here is written in an academic style, but other parts are casual and full of slang.

I hope you have a great Valentine’s Day!

Valentine’s Day Differences

Valentine’s Day is coming up this Thursday! Are you ready?

two children making valentines, by johnny_automatic at

Valentine’s Day is celebrated differently around the world. What do you know about Valentine’s Day in the US? Check yourself by taking this quiz!

Regarding Valentine’s Day in America …

  1. … do men and boys receive most of the chocolate?
  2. … do people often give presents to their loved ones?
  3. … do couples often go out to dinner together?
  4. … do many elementary school students give cards to all of their classmates?
  5. … do people only give cards to their romantic partners, and not to friends and family?
  6. … do restaurants offer special dinner menus?
  7. … do most people make their own chocolate to give as gifts?
  8. … does your boss expect you to give him or her a present?
  9. … do you get the day off?
  10. … is it the number one day for buying flowers?
  11. … is chocolate the most popular candy?
  12. … is there another holiday in March called White Day, where men give gifts to women?

Okay, ready?

Here are the answers!

  1. NO! Men can both give and receive chocolate, but women get more chocolate than men.
  2. YES! Jewelry is common, but it can be anything–books, plants, video games, art, gift certificates, a bicycle, or anything that your loved one will enjoy.
  3. YES! I’m planning to go to dinner with my husband.
  4. YES! In my school, each student decorated a shoebox or paperback for receiving valentines. Then, on Valentine’s Day, we had to bring a card for each classmate (so that no one would be sad). Some students also give out candy. Stores carry special cheap cards, which come in a box of 20 or more. These cards have images of cartoon characters like Pokemon and Spongebob, pop stars, sports stars, etc. Children sometimes make valentines using colored paper, stickers, etc.
  5. NO! Some people give cards to their partners and to their children, friends, family members, etc. It depends on the person.
  6. YES! These dinners are often very expensive. They are often a set price and include special extras like champagne, roses, and a special dessert.
  7. NO! Some people do, but almost all people just buy their candy. Popular brands include See’s, Joseph Schmidt, and Godiva. M&Ms and other ordinary brands have special colors and flavors, and very expensive chocolate shops make special candies, too.
  8. NO! Your boss will probably be shocked if you give him or her a gift, since this day is mostly for romance.
  9. NO! Almost no one has this day off, because it’s not a national holiday.
  10. YES! It’s considered a romantic gift. Traditionally, men give roses to the women they love, but there are many other choices depending on the people. Of course, it’s okay for women to give flowers to men, and same-sex couples to each other, etc.
  11. YES! A lot of chocolate is sold for Valentine’s Day, and you can buy special chocolates at all kinds of stores (even gas stations).
  12. NO! White Day was invented in Japan, as far as I know. It is not known or celebrated in American culture–there’s no need for it here since Valentine’s Day is for both men and women to give and receive presents.

How did you score? Did you learn anything new, or did you already know everything? Actually, there’s a lot more to know about Valentine’s Day, because it’s a very old holiday in Europe (where it comes from). In a few days, I’ll post some websites where you can learn more about Valentine’s Day.

P. S. Significant other is a way to refer to “wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner,” etc., without making any guesses about the relationship or the gender of the person. (After all, you often can’t tell by looking if someone is married, gay, etc.) For example, let’s imagine that I have two co-workers, Alice and Scott. If Alice works late every day and never takes a vacation, I might ask Scott this question: “Does Alice have a significant other? It seems like she’s always working, and she’s never mentioned anyone.”

Quick Tip: Check a Name’s Gender

Sometimes it’s important to know if a person is a man or a woman, just from his or her name. Julia, Julio, Ben, Beth, Hiram, Hillary, Abdul, Abril: which of these personal names are male and which are female?

silhouette of a boy and a girl, uploaded by johnny_automatic at

Americans probably learn which is which by exposure through books and by meeting people. However, I’ve noticed that many of my students and clients are often confused by these kinds of names in their textbooks and workplaces. There are a few rules of thumb, but they don’t work very well–for example, if a name is Latin-based, an “-a” ending is usually female and an “-o” ending is usually male. So, probably, Julia is a woman and Julio is a man. But that doesn’t work for Joshua, a common American male name originating in Hebrew.

Here are two quick ways you can check on a name–however, note that name creativity is part of American culture, so parents sometimes “break the rules” and give a girl a boy’s name or vice versa.

Method 1: Try the Baby Name Voyager! Click on “Launch Name Voyager,” then type in the name you’re interested in. You can see the popularity of names in the US over the last few decades, based on US Social Security Administration data. Names for females are pink, and names for boys are blue (I guess it’s sexist, but that’s the current tradition in the US). You can also see how closely related names are divided as you type–Juliet (female), Julian (male), Julia (female), Julio (male), etc. I think it’s fun to play with, and you can pick up some historical information this way–did you know that in the 1920s the Japanese name “Hiroshi” made it into the top 1000?

Method 2: If a name is more rare, you might not have any luck at the above site. In that case, you can try Google Images. If you check on my name, you’ll see nearly all women and girls in the photos. (You’ll get a few unrelated results, such as a picture of the actor Sean Bean from a TV production of the novel called Clarissa.) It’s not perfect, but it works pretty well. Actually, I do the same thing to check Chinese names sometimes, if I can’t tell from how it’s written.

If you have any other solutions to this problem, make sure to leave a comment.

Do You Have an Accent?

That’s the question asked by Professor Joseph L. Mbele, who is from Tanzania but teaches English at St. Olaf College in Minnesota (USA).

The answer is yes. Everyone has an accent. I have an accent when I speak Chinese or Japanese, but I also have an accent when I speak English. The way you speak even your native language is determined by your family, where you grow up, your education, etc. I speak American English, of course, but my speaking is affected by my Californian parents, my Midwestern relatives, being raised in the South, and so forth.

Professor Mbele also asks this:

Why should someone with a proper Nigerian or Ugandan accent be pressured to speak like an American? Why should someone with a proper Jamaican or British accent be pressured to speak like an American? In Africa, no one asks foreigners to speak English like Africans: the British speak with their own accent; so do the Indians, the Australians and others.

You can read “Do You Have an Accent?” at The African News Journal. I highly recommend reading it yourself.

Anyway, happy New Year!

Christmas traditions

Christmas is a huge holiday in the United States. For many people, it’s the most important holiday of the year. (It’s much more important than Thanksgiving for most people who celebrate both.)


However, not everyone celebrates Christmas. For many people, Christmas is a Christian religious holiday. People from other religions often have other winter holidays that they celebrate in November and December, including Yule, Diwali, Hanukkah, etc. Some people celebrate more than one holiday. Other people don’t celebrate any holidays. Some people celebrate in a non-religious way–many people follow Christmas traditions (Christmas trees, presents, etc.) but don’t consider themselves Christians. Because the United States is ethnically and religiously diverse, most people have friends, family, and co-workers who celebrate differently from themselves. That’s why many Americans who do celebrate Christmas feel it is more polite to sometimes say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” If you don’t know what holiday someone celebrates, it’s more considerate to say “Happy holidays” instead of assuming that the person celebrates Christmas. For the same reason, a lot of Americans (including me) send holiday cards that say “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or send different cards depending on the recipient.

There are regional differences in how Christmas is celebrated around the world. Different countries have very different traditions. In the USA, different areas sometimes have regional traditions based on where the local people’s ancestors come from. Different Christian groups also celebrate Christmas differently. Some groups, including Catholics, observe a four-week period called Advent, while most other Christian denominations don’t. Many Americans have backgrounds that include a variety of religions and ethnicities, so they may have a variety of different traditions. That’s true in my family. Our Christmas traditions include gelt, Christmas stockings, mistletoe, eggnog, Christmas crackers, holiday cards, and advent calendars. (You can look up all of these topics on Wikipedia, or just explore the many Christmas-related articles there.)

In countries where Christmas arrived more recently, such as Japan, other traditions have become popular. In Japan, it’s considered a good day for a romantic date, whereas in the USA it’s kept as a day for families and children. Fried chicken is popular for Christmas dinner in Japan, whereas Americans often prepare ham or beef at home, and British people often eat turkey, goose, or duck. Americans often have desserts such as pie or fruitcake (a spiced bread with dried fruit), while in Britain you can buy an iced fruitcake called a Christmas cake–but in Japan, a Christmas cake is a sponge cake that is beautifully iced and topped with fruit or Christmas decorations.

Anyway, I really enjoy Christmas because I like picking out presents for my friends and family, decorating the tree, seeing all of the lit-up houses in town, etc. This year, my husband and I flew to Arkansas to visit our families, so we’re doing lots of Christmas things with them. If we had stayed in California, we would have gone to our friend’s Yule party. What do you enjoy doing in December and January?

Whatever you do or don’t celebrate, I hope you have a wonderful month and a happy new year! Happy holidays!

How to be a good house guest

The holidays are coming up here in the USA, when a lot of people travel home or invite friends and family to stay with them. If you’re studying abroad, maybe some friends or a family that you know will invite you to stay at their home. This can be a wonderful experience that you’ll never forget, if your hosts are nice. Of course, everyone will have a better time if you are a well-behaved guest, too.

Everyone’s happy with a good house guest!

10 Ways to be an Excellent House Guest lists some of the things you can do (at least in the US) to be considered a good guest. For #9, I recommend that you ask your host before you strip the bed (that is, remove the sheets and pillowcases). For #10, if you forget, you can always mail a card. You can buy thank-you cards for 99 cents at most drugstores and card shops, such as Hallmark.

You should also ask if you should bring anything. If you’re going to stay with a college classmate, for example, she might not have extra towels or pillows. In addition, if you can’t eat something because of your health or religion, you should let your host know politely. You should also offer to take care of that yourself. For example, “I’m vegetarian, so if you don’t mind, could we go to the grocery store so I could buy some vegetarian entrees for myself?” It’s likely that your host will offer fix appropriate food for you, but you should be prepared to cheerfully take care of yourself if you need to.

Traditional host gifts for going to dinner at someone’s house include flowers, potted plants, wine (if the hosts drink alcohol), candy and chocolates, sweets from your home country, traditional items from your home country, homemade items such as bread, tea, and that kind of thing. If you’re staying overnight or for several nights, the gift should probably be a little bigger, such as a potted plant and some candy together. However, the cost is not as important as just remembering to bring something. You can just say “This is for you; thank you for having me over/thank you for letting me stay with you.” The host will probably say “Oh, you didn’t have to!” or something like that. But, of course, you were probably expected to.

While you’re staying with a host, don’t hesitate to ask for something if you need to. Just be polite about it. For example, if your host asks if you’re cold and need another blanket, say yes if you’re cold! Just be polite and say something like “Oh, if you don’t mind, that would be great.” Your host will feel very bad if he or she finds out later that you were uncomfortable during your visit, so it’s better to ask when you need something. It’s a good time for phrases like “Would you mind if I … Would it be possible to … Is there some way I could … Do you mind if I … Is it all right if I … I hate to bother you, but … ” etc. If your host can’t help you with the problem, then relax, be nice about it, and apologize for bothering them. (Of course, if you need something important such as medication, you should make sure that you get it somehow.)

This year I’ll be staying with my parents and my parents-in-law, so that’s a little different. They’d be insulted if I offered to help pay for the groceries, since we’re family. I’ll still try to help with some of the chores–and of course, I’ll already be bringing presents!

What do you think a good house guest should do?

P. S. Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Oh no, I haven’t posted since Halloween! I’m sorry. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. You can read about Thanksgiving in the United States at Wikipedia (and also in Simple English). An interesting note in the main article is that many Americans associate the day after Thanksgiving with shopping. It’s the day sometimes called Black Friday. A lot of people read the newspaper ads on Thanksgiving (or check various websites) and find special discounts that they want to get. Sometimes people line up for hours to get a very cheap TV, videogame system, etc. Some of the stores can get really crazy.

Because of all the emphasis on buying things, some people think this day reflects the negative materialistic parts of our society. Instead, they promote thoughtfulness and lack of wastefulness through Buy Nothing Day, when they don’t buy anything. I don’t know if I’ll buy stuff on Friday or not!

Anyway, we’ll have four guests tomorrow for Thanksgiving, so the eight of us will eat turkey, pie, mashed potatoes, etc. Tomorrow, you should be able to see lots of Thanksgiving dinner photos on Flickr. Happy Thanksgiving!

Well, I’m still waiting for your comments. Please comment! I need to know that you are reading, so that I will be encouraged to keep writing.


October 31, tomorrow, is my favorite holiday: Halloween! I wanted to write a long post about Halloween, but my life is a little stressful right now. However, I noticed this today: Ten Tales of Terror, by several excellent authors including Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favorite writers. Each story is very short–only a paragraph or two long. In addition, there is a sound file of each story, read aloud by the author.

Some might be a little hard to understand, such as the next to last one (which is about politics). However, I think you’ll be able to understand and enjoy most of them–at least, if you like scary stories!

Several friends from other countries have asked me this week about the origins of Halloween. It’s a little hard to explain because Halloween is so old that it began before Christianity was common in Europe, and before things were regularly written down. As a result, we don’t really know much about the beginnings of the ancient cultural or religious celebration that is now Halloween. Halloween originated in the British Isles (Ireland, England, etc.), but is probably most popular now in North America. You can read about the history and customs of Halloween at Wikipedia in the Simple English article, the main English article, or in several other languages. Just look on the left side of the main article for explanations in other languages.

In the USA, Halloween is popular with most ages and ethnic groups, although some groups of conservative Christians don’t like it. Every year, they protest Halloween celebrations. However, for most people, it is a fun day to celebrate the imagination. Many adults and families have Halloween parties, where the guests often come in costume. After sunset, children dress up and are taken trick-or-treating in their neighborhood or at a shopping center. Adults may also go to themed events such as Halloween dances at nightclubs, costume contests with big cash prizes, and concerts. You can see a lot of Halloween party photos and other Halloween photos at Flickr (or you can also view more artistic Halloween 2007 photos).

Usually several horror movies are released near Halloween. This year, “30 Days of Night” has been popular. It’s about a group of vampires who go to Alaska. The movie I want to see is the 3-D version of “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Halloween season is extended from October 31 through November 2. November 1 and 2 are the Dias de los Muertos, or Day(s) of the Dead. This holiday from Mexico and Latin America has many themes in common with Halloween. In the Bay Area, there are various events such as concerts and neighborhood street festivals. At Mexican bakeries, you can buy special bread and sugar skulls. I recommend going to a Dias de los Muertos event if there is one near you!

If I can find my camera, I’ll post photos from our party tomorrow.