How're you doing today?

The city of Chicago
"How are you doing today?" 

That was the question I was asked the most in America. 

Recently I travelled to New York and Chicago. It wasn't my first time to visit the US. I went to New York before. But it was my first time to go to Chicago, and it was also my first time noticing just how my day became a matter of concern among strangers out there - the airline ground staff asked me about my day, immigration officers asked me, shop assistants asked me, and even a stranger sitting next to me at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago was curious of how my day went. Seriously why did Americans like to ask such an invasive question? 

"When they ask you about your day, they genuinely want to hear about your day, said my American-born Chinese friend A.

That was downright culture shock. What did my day have anything to do with these strangers? What did they want to know? And what was I supposed to say? 

If I answered "very well" when I genuinely felt very well, then that was fine. And I tested it out on a few people, normally there were no follow-up questions. 

But what if I felt shit, or something horrible happened, was I supposed to tell the truth? If I maintained "very well" as an answer, it was like lying to myself. But if I told the truth, would the strangers be genuinely interested in hearing my stories? 

"Just say very well or okay, " said my American colleague R, "unless something really bad happened." 

"It's just a way to say hi, like Chinese people asking each other if they had eaten yet. They don't really mean it." 

However, the difference between American and Chinese was that, Chinese people only asked people they knew, but the Americans simply asked anyone who came along. So if someone I knew asked me if I had eaten, I wouldn't have any problem answering that question. But if it were a stranger, I'd be like, what did you want, especially when you didn't even mean what you were asking? Weren't you Americans a little too fake, that you only asked me for the sake of asking me without a genuine interest in hearing about my day? It was okay not to care, really. 

Buddy Guy singing at his blues bar
Across the bar at Buddy Guy's Legends, a stranger named John threw me the same question. Initially I hesitated. I was there only to enjoy myself at the blues gig. But as John kept asking me questions and telling me his life story of 60 years (or more) I lowered my guard. 

John moved from the city to the country. He said one day when he walked into the woods, he found this old couple living in a little hunt. He had never met the old couple, but they treated him like an old friend after learning that he moved into the neighbourhood. They ate and talked as if they were old friends. "I learnt about real life, real people. That was how things should be, no hidden agenda like those living in the city." 

Maybe John was right. However, I still declined his offer to buy me a drink - I didn't have any alcoholic drink at all as I was on my own. As the clock struck midnight, I realised it was my time to go home. John offered to walk me back to my hotel, which was only one block away. I refused. "A girl should not be wandering in the streets here alone at night," John said. Ok! Fine! 

Few minutes later, we arrived at the entrance of my hotel. Just as I was wondering how to send him off, he gave me a hug, bid farewell and wished me luck. I stood still, staring at his back as he walked off. My feet didn't move until I saw he disappear into the darkness of the street corner. So perhaps there were people out there who were genuinely nice and wanted to reach out, but cynicism just got in their way.

John, how're you doing today? 

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