A few weeks ago, my roommate let out a big sneeze. "Whoa! Bless you!" I said.
She looked at me. "What?"
"I said, bless you."
"Oh." She looked confused. "Bless me?"
"Yes. You say that when people sneeze."
"Oh." She continued to look confused. "Doesn't 'bless' mean zhufu?" (That's the literal translation of "bless.")
"Well, yes, it does, but, you know, Westerners say it when someone sneezes, to, you know, bless them." I paused. That explanation didn't seem to have helped. "It's just a way of being nice."
"Oh." She considered this. "Okay."
"You can also say gesundheit," I added helpfully.
"Oh? And what does that mean?"
"The same as bless you."
"Right," she said. "Well, in China we don't say anything like that."
The closest I could come to any etymology of "bless you" was an image of a nice old lady chuckling merrily and saying, "Oh, bless you, child!" at a little girl's sneeze. I supposed that it had something to do with the sneezer's innocence, and the notion that some small affliction had come down upon her through no fault of her own. Beyond that, I had no idea.
(It turns out that "bless" comes from the Anglo-Saxon bletsian or bledsian, probably from blod, blood, from the use of sacrificial blood in ancient blessing ceremonies. That really doesn't help. Someone on the Internet thinks that the phrase originated during the plague in the 14th century, since a sneeze was thought to be the first sign of death. If that's true, my image of the nice old lady chuckling merrily seems so very, very wrong.)
Even though a sneeze in China is met with complete silence, the urge to say "bless you" when I hear one usually outweighs the difficulty I know I'll have of explaining what it means. In fact, half the time I say it without meaning to. When this happens people either look confused or, if they know about the strange Western practice, smile knowingly at their friends. Oh, these foreigners!
In a way it's alarming how deeply this cultural practice has become embedded into my habits, so much so that it becomes unconsciously reflexive, as innocent as a sneeze itself. It's alarming because the same thing can be said for so many automatic habits and assumptions, some not nearly so innocuous, or unfathomable, as the little phrase, "bless you."