China, Cultural Differences, Food, Social Customs

How Sweet

I’ve been stewing over this post for a good while now and have done a great deal of self-reflection on my motives for writing it and what I’m trying to say exactly. I think everyone can relate to feeling a little misunderstood and I suppose that’s the underlying emotion. So as you read, please forgive me for my moments of soapbox-ing. (Removing plank from eye)

One of the very fun parts of my job is organizing cultural activities for students at our host university in Xi’an. Cooking class is one such activity and a very popular one too. However, cooking and therefore food have recently become a source of constant bristly behavior on my part. I’ve developed this bizarre inability to be a completely impartial, objective philosopher on issues of food and cultural differences. How strange of me.

Following a recent cooking class I had this (summarized) conversation with a student:
Me: Did you enjoy the cooking class?
Him: Oh yes! It was great! I really liked the banana bread.
Me: Good. It was very nice, wasn’t it?
Him: Yes. And to be honest I liked it even more than the cookies that X made a few weeks ago.
Me: Oh? Why?
Him: Well the cookies were not to my taste. They were too sweet.
Me: Too sweet? They’re cookies. They’re supposed to be sweet!
Him: Yes, but you’re an American. You like sweet things. Chinese people don’t like sweet things.

I’ll leave off my spluttering. The conversation from there took a familiar path with the Chinese student solemnly intoning about Chinese people’s dislike for sugar. A statement to which I everywhere see evidence against. The number of bread stores in China? Milk tea shops? The explosion of coffee culture? Ice cream? Soda? I think Chinese people like sugar. They like it very much. I had coffee with that student and watched him empty four sugar packets into his latte. Hmmm.

I repeated the conversation to the teacher who led the most recent cooking activity with a roll of my eyes and told him to take this into consideration when planning future cooking classes. For the next class, they prepared a rice pudding and left out about half the sugar. The students enjoyed the class and like the pudding. Another foreign teacher wandered in, sampled the pudding and with a crease in his forehead asked where the sugar was. I laughed out loud. (A question is this: if we alter recipes to suit Chinese tastes, are we really teaching “American cooking?”)

I’m not going to deny that Americans like sweet desserts, but after four years of “American ______ (insert a noun here) is/are too ______ (insert negative adjective here) I guess what I’m looking for is a little more open mindedness and a moment when my “culture” (such as it is) isn’t being constantly criticized.* I mean, can I get like one positive aspect about American food, puh-lease?!?

At the heart of the matter is—IMHO—sensitivity to other people’s culture, specifically food culture. As a temporary resident in the Dominican Republic, Georgia (Republic of), and China I’ve had the chance to sample plenty of strange dishes. I firmly believe that the best policy is to sample a little of everything because a) you never know what you’ll like, and b) it’s only polite. If there’s something you don’t like you don’t exclaim in horror and push your plate away. Approach every new dish with an open attitude and neutral facial expressions, because believe me your hosts are watching for your reaction!

Also on the subject of food manners, another best policy is not to tell a person from X country what the food of X country is like, especially when you’ve never visited the country of X! Avoiding mass generalizations is essential.

I gave a little end-of-the-year and bon voyage speech to my USA-bound students a few weeks ago. Along with other advice, I said a few words on this very topic. Food is culture. A very real, tangible, edible part of local culture. I relayed to them my experiences in China and one of the top three questions I get asked: do you like Chinese food? Now, I asked them, if I wrinkled my nose, grimaced and said that I didn’t like Chinese food how would that make you—as a native Chinese—feel? Frowns all around. Exactly, I said. Food IS culture and everyone likes a little respect. So when you are in the States, if someone asks you for your opinion on American food, please—in the interests of building cross-cultural relationships and not starting wars—go for a diplomatic answer!

I’d like to believe that it’s all my American training in multiculturalism and political correctness at work here, making me twitch uncomfortably at every blanket statement and stereotype. That in combination with my genuine desire to educate my students about the diversity of the USA, in terms of population as well as local culture. Otherwise I’m simply lacking a thick skin and the only solution is to drink more beer and become as loudly and gloriously bellicose as American stereotypes would have me be.

*This is one of the lightest comments I’ve received about American food, but it appears it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

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China, Cultural Differences, Food

Eating with the Seasons

Living in Georgia (Republic of) gave me a much greater appreciation for the changing of the seasons. A coastal Californian gal, the changing of seasons is much less showy at home. (It’s there, just much more subtle and requiring a much greater sensitivity to appreciate it! Defensive? Not much.)

In Georgia, the seasons were distinct and it wasn’t just the weather than changed, but more importantly the food! Wow, yes. Winter was a misery of bread and potatoes. You’re grateful for them, but you’d sure like some variety! Unfortunately in the village of Korbouli there was not much else to be had. It’s winter—deal with it! Easter is something to celebrate on more than one level when there are garden fresh veggies to gorge on. And that first summer melon? Heavenly.

China is much the same, though there are hothouse fruits and veggies available for sky-high prices for those with no interest in the actual flavor of the food. In China the true changing of the seasons is announced not only with vegetation, but with street peddlers. Spring is announced with strawberries, cherries and mulberries, Summer with watermelons and peaches, fall with gorgeous apples from within the province. A sight for the eyes and also good for the heart!

Fruit is widely available everywhere, partly due to the industriousness of the fruit sellers. Looking for a healthy snack? Walk outside the school gate and you’ll have your pick. Simply on the basis of my observations, I think Chinese students must eat more fruits than their American counterparts because on campus a bag of fruit swinging from an arm is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. (Perhaps American students are drinking their fruit in the form of smoothies? Unknown.) The student market in Zhuhai keeps pre-sliced fruit in little containers right in front of the store and students buy them the way we buy soda and Snicker bars. And in the airport you see travelers simply loaded down with boxes of fresh fruit to take home to family and friends. These are people who value fruit! The end of most formal dinners is signaled with the arrival of the fruit plate.

On the subject of fruit, allow me to introduce you to an interesting fruit curiosity in China. Tomatoes—recognized technically as a fruit in the States, but treated as a vegetable—are most definitely a fruit in China. If you order a fruit salad in China, an American will be surprised to find tomatoes mixed in with other more common fruits. (We won’t go into the use of mayonnaise with fruit salads here!) And a cake from a bakery, decorating with cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc. might also have some brightly colored tomatoes nestled in the whipped cream. It puts me in mind of the Hidden Valley Ranch advertisements that had kids licking ice cream cones of raw broccoli with ranch on top. We can only hope that in America in the future kids will be fighting for the tomato piece of cake and not the one with the oh-so-important flower. We’re getting off topic here. I apologize.

Seasons, yes. Fruit, yes. There’s something to be said for China where every street corner has someone selling fruit. And if you’re in a need of a more filling snack, there’s also corn and potatoes! Steamed corn and roasted sweet potatoes are also widely available and a much healthier snack than anything from a fast food joint. These industries seem to provide the pocket money of a whole range of locals. It’s another one of these things where a less tightly controlled environment allows for some good small business opportunities. This relates to the question of relative “freedom” across countries which often comes up in discussion with students. Perhaps a topic for another post.

I’m riding a train back from Beijing right now and as I type the people in front of me just pulled out a huge box of lytchees and have been happily eating those for the last hour or so. They’ve since moved on to fresh peaches. Sometimes it’s a very nice life in China.

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China, Cultural Differences, Transportation

Shuttle Buses and Differences in Etiqutte

Following up on my post about the taxis in Xi’an, I thought I’d discuss another transportation aspect of my life here: the shuttle bus. As mentioned before, the teachers’ shuttle bus provided by my college is the best and surest way or getting out to my campus, which is a 45-minute to 1-hour trip depending on traffic conditions.

Xi’an is a city with a huge number of universities. It is third in number of universities after Beijing and Shanghai. Most of the universities have an original campus and a “new” campus. “New” campuses have become necessary as universities have grown and unsurprisingly they are all located on the outskirts of the city. As faculty may potentially have classes on both campuses and public transportation may not be sufficient, many universities provide shuttle bus service from various central pick-up points out to these distant locales.*

The shuttle is different than other transportation I’ve taken in China. It is a private bus exclusively for faculty and staff of the college. Gloriously enough everyone has a seat. (It would be a whole separate blog post to talk about the pleasures of standing in crowded conditions for long, bumpy bus rides.) So fortunately there is no sardine factor. It’s also completely free, which means that there’s no fumbling for transportation cards or cash. I think it’s a wonderful service to offer to the faculty and staff and it seems very well used. Third there’s the bus itself, which is far more comfortable than city buses and has a number of features that will be discussed next.

Riding the shuttle bus has also been a great place for noticing some small cultural behaviors that may be slightly different from what one would expect in the States. It is very true that you learn a great deal about your own culture by spending time in a different one. I will attempt to summarize briefly:

1. In the States if you take a seat on the end of a row, it is more or less expected that you will scoot to the inside seat by the window if more people are boarding the bus. This does not appear to be an expectation in China as the person on the end will often merely move their knees to the side to allow someone to get to the window seat. They may stand up to allow them in if it’s absolutely necessary. Maybe the person prefers the aisle seat? Maybe they’ll be getting off soon? I can’t always know. It just seems to be the norm here.
2. On the shuttle bus, everyone knows the route of the shuttle and chooses their seat to avoid the sun. I’ve boarded the bus before and been briefly puzzled by one side is quite full and the other completely empty. This relates to the Chinese preference for pale skin—women in particular. In the same way that American women are vigorously applying tanning lotion, Chinese women are equally vigorously applying whitening lotions. So of course they don’t want to sit in the sun.
3. Along with #2 is #3—curtains. If the shady side of the bus is full and one must sit on the sunny side the curtains will be immediately closed. As I’m not as concerned about sun exposure, I sort of like having the curtains open.
4. My bus leaves at 1:10 which is smack-dab in the middle of naptime. Yes, sir, naptime is alive and well in China. Work/school will break around 11:30 or 12 and not start again until around 2. Most people here prefer to eat a very quick lunch and then grab some zzz’s until they have to head back. So this means that the bus ride is essentially nap time for most. People board the bus, put back their seat, and seem to instantly fall asleep. Man, I wish I could do that!
5. However, when the bus makes that right turn into the college campus, all the nappers seem to have this sixth sense. They immediately snap awake, put up their seats and are standing before the bus has even come to a complete stop. You’ve gotta be quick because the disembarking is very much first-come-first-served. If you’re not up and in the aisle, you’ll probably be waiting for almost the entire bus to get off before you get your chance. Whereas in the States I feel like we unload from the front to the back, here it’s more the opposite.

* Though car ownership is definitely on the rise, driving to work does not seem very common.

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Cultural Differences, Food, Travel

In which we arrive in Auckland

Arriving in Auckland, one of my fondest memories was going into the convenience store to get some water. We meant to just grab a bottle of water and go, but we were positively arrested by the sight of hundreds of products that we hadn’t seen in what seemed like years. There were soft drinks, snacks, chocolates, chips—oh my! The surest way to an expats heart is through his/her stomach! We’ll walk a hundred miles for Twix.

And not just food, but the marvel of English newspapers and magazines. I’ve often pondered my lust for magazines when I am abroad. Though I’m hardly an avid reader at home, I develop a serious craving as soon as they are no longer easily available. Every Chinese language newsstand is a reminder of this hole in my life. Sniff, sniff.

Stephen and I exclaimed our way through the convenience store, I’m sure much to the surprise and then amusement of the staff. We checked our greed, reminding ourselves that this would not be the only convenience store we encountered in New Zealand. Scanning our stack of free tourist pamphlets and brochures, we caught the Airport Express bus to downtown Auckland. The ride was enjoyable as Stephen excitedly pointed out familiar places in the passing scenery and filled me in on his time living in Auckland.

First impression of downtown Auckland was favorable. Not a New York or Los Angeles, but a respectably urban downtown. A nice hilly quality in some parts. We hauled our luggage to the Britomart luggage lockers, causing me to already regret my packing choices. Stephen called his friend we were going to stay with and we settled down in a café to wait for her.

Amusing experience #2 was attempting to order coffee at the café. The menu didn’t look anything like an American or even British menu. I was presented with the choice of a short black, long black, flat white, or cappuccino. Uhhh. I asked Stephen for clarification, but a coffee-drinker he is not. No help there. Becoming quickly aware that I was, indeed, not in Kansas anymore, I humbled myself and asked the girl behind the counter what a flat white was. She must have not been asked that before, because her explanation was not very helpful. Sooo, like coffee and milk? Okay. But what’s the difference between that and a latte? Uhhhh. Blink, blink. Not wanting to be an irritating foreigner, I decided to take my chances with the flat white. I also couldn’t resist ordering an apricot “slice,” which I suppose Americans would call an apricot “bar”. Apricots! Wah! Me no see long time! We realized quickly that the availability of fresh summer fruits was going to be one of the unexpected benefits of visiting New Zealand at this time.

I sipped my coffee and nibbled on my apricot slice and thought that things seemed to be getting off on a good foot.

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Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Travel, University Teaching

December Recap

Apologies! Apologies! It’s been far too long! In the interests of time (and not boring you to tears) I thought I’d provide a summary of what’s been going on for the last two months, as there have been some interesting events and excursions.

Christmas season

Though Christmas is not a Chinese holiday many Chinese students have embraced it as a fun holiday to celebrate with their friends, in contrast with traditional festivals, which are generally family festivals. Christmas observance is mostly observed through decorations, especially the large number of Christmas trees around. Even the little market on campus had a Christmas tree and all the employees were wearing Santa hats for most of December.

My apartment looked very cheerful with all the items I’d bought last year and other things my mom had sent me: pinecones, mini Christmas tree, Christmas dish towels, etc. I even found some Christmas lights, which I’ve been reluctant to take down since I put them up.

Some of my students surprised me with Christmas gifts and cards. Three of my English majors gave me a cute mug, some candles and several apples. Other student gifts included a Yakult, random pieces of chocolate, Mongolian snacks, and more apples.

What’s the deal with the apples? Apple in Chinese is ‘ping guo’ which shares a Chinese character with the word ‘peace’, so to give an apple has become representative of good wishes/peace for Christmas. Which I thought was super cool, once I understood what it meant.

Macau for ‘The Hobbit’

Also in December, a group of foreign teachers decided to venture to Macau to see ‘The Hobbit’. Though it likely would be arriving in China sometime in the future, many of us couldn’t wait that long. So we ventured across the border to Macau. Zhuhai borders Macau and whenever I go to there I think “Why don’t I go to Macau more often?” Then, when I’m waiting in long slow lines to exit “China” and enter “Macau” I remember why I don’t. Yeah. That.

‘The Hobbit’ would deserve a long post of its own. To be brief, I’d say that as a movie it was acceptably entertaining, but as the film version of a beloved childhood book I left disappointed. The Gollum and Bilbo scene was excellent, but that was the high point for me.

Christmas Party

Last year the foreign teachers of my school were extremely lacking in a sense of community. Though a friend and I tried to organize a Christmas potluck, it was essentially a no-go. We managed to scrape together 4 people for a modest evening. Fortunately many of the new teachers that arrived this fall are extremely community-minded. We had a FANTASTIC Christmas party, complete with lots of good food, drinks, conversation, games and really loud off-key caroling. Most excellent.

So December was a pretty good month all around, if not exactly an American December.

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Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Final Behaviors of Note

Okay, let’s wrap this up. The final three behaviors of note:

#9 – Not taking notes

It’s very strange as a teacher to be explaining important vocabulary, cultural information, and grammar points for up to 90 minutes and not have a single student taking any of it down. My words just disappear into a void. Most discouraging. Especially if I teach the same class multiple times in week.

I should just record myself and play it back to the class while I put my feet up.

#1O – Cheating Creative Cheating

Chinese students are seemingly inveterate cheaters. I prowl the classroom constantly during any quiz and I am forever spotting those little finger movements that indicate looking something up or the head-on-chest syndrome for furtive under the desk cell phone usage. And there is always a slight background buzz of whispered conversations and consultations no matter how much I demand silence. And when I declare the quiz over and papers to be handed in the real cheating begins as students frantically copy from each other. All their efforts to deceive me and get a better grade makes me wonder why they don’t just pay attention and do a little studying. Gee.

Sleep without detection!

Sleep without detection!


#11 – Sleeping

Probably the first Chinese behavior that struck a nerve was the sleeping in class. This drove me nuts last year, but I’ve become more desensitized to it. Such that I almost forgot to mention it. Yes. Chinese students will sleep in class. Full on head-down-sound-asleep in class. Local Chinese teachers have told me that they don’t care if students sleep in class. I sputtered incredulously when I heard this. What? Impossible! A little nodding off is one thing, but full on sleeping is another. In the words of my students, “I cannot accept it.” Yes, I will wake them up with a knock or two on the desk and a cheerful “good morning.” If I have to be there teaching them, they have to at least pretend to be “learning.”

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Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Teaching, Uncategorized, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Behavior #2

We return to the Chinese student in his/her natural environment. The student habitually chooses a seat as far away from the board as humanly possible. (Generally, there is an inverse relationship between row number and class mark.)

Mid-way through the lesson the teacher might get irritated at the student’s obvious lack of attention and call on them to answer a question. Invariably the student will have a quizzical who?-me? expression or might only respond to a kindly meant elbow from their classmate. The teacher will patiently repeat the question.

The student will squint at the board and then nonchalantly reach for their glasses. Teacher goggles and mind implodes with this revelation. Student has been sitting in class the entire time unable to see the board and not caring in the least. But the surprise isn’t over yet!

The student then holds up their glasses to their eyes, but DOES NOT UNFOLD THEM NOR PUT THEM ON. He/she holds them up like a magnifying glass or a monocle, despite the fact that the arms are obstructing their view. Do you understand what I’m describing? Does it not absolutely boggle your mind?

Consider the staggering implications: not only has the student not been able to see the board for the entire lesson, but he/she doesn’t have any intention of following the lesson past finishing this obligatory activity. So it would simply be wasted effort to actually put the glasses on. I mean, why would you want to see the board?

When the student finishes answering the question or giving a perfunctory “I don’t know,” the glasses are lowered and placed back on the desk. The student resumes state of suspended animation.

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