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.

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.

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.

Campus Life, China, Food

Birthday Festivities

My birthday intruded itself upon our last weekend before the end of the semester. I rallied some of the FT community to have dinner at a local Italian place.

I spent the whole afternoon before baking a fabulous cake: yellow fudge marble with custard filling and butter cream frosting. I was in the interesting position of having no powdered sugar, which is the only way I know how to make frosting. Some research on the internet showed me that there are, indeed, other ways to make frosting. So I very carefully whipped up a frosting that is part boiled milk and flour and part creamed butter and granulated sugar. The final product was fantastic—highly recommended and very doable with some patience and care.

Why bake my own cake? Two reasons: one, I genuinely love baking and have few opportunities here; and two, most cakes I’ve had from Chinese bakeries have been all looks and no taste. Not what I wanted for my birthday.

The dinner itself was very enjoyable, but with the crowd of people we have here that’s never enough. Night is still young and all that. So the questions arose of what was next on the agenda. I wasn’t particularly interesting in hitting the clubs downtown, so that left us with . . . KTV.

For the uninitiated, KTV is private karaoke—all the rage in Asian countries. You go with your friends to a KTV, sing all your favorite songs, eat snacks, drink beer, dance—and it’s all in the privacy of your own little room. So different from karaoke in America, which I’ve explained as something only the incredibly talented or the incredibly drunk do.

KTV had struck me as something relatively enjoyable in the few times I’d been previously, so I was willing to give it a go. What followed after that was an extremely enjoyable several hours belting out songs and dancing foolishly among some really excellent people. We all agreed that it was a great time and I went home feeling my birthday had been celebrated in proper style.

China, Food, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Travel

Gone Over to the Dark Side

An unexpected casualty of several years abroad is that my taste in coffee is getting worse. First step is to admit I have a problem, right? So. Deep breath. Hi, my name is Amy. I like instant coffee.

How did this nasty addiction develop? It started in Georgia. Though real coffee beans were available, my host family was firmly entrenched in the instant coffee camp. They drank a Brazilian instant coffee, called Café Pele, that once I got used to it I grew to like, even love.

I left Georgia with a gigantic Yuban-style can of Café Pele. At home in California, I explored the delights of how convenient making iced coffee is with instant coffee. I found that the French Roast that had been my mainstay through grad school suddenly tasted like mud. I tried to readjust, but it just wasn’t working. In desperation, I bought a bottle of Nescafe. I know, right? Nescafe. Seriously?! But it tasted good to me. Another step down a slippery slope. By the time I left America again I was on a half brewed, half instant coffee diet, having somewhat readjusted to “real” coffee.

I came to China last year with the end of my Café Pele. When it was finished, I went out and bought a ceramic one-cup coffee filter and some ground coffee. But it just wasn’t working. Maybe if I had a real coffee pot it would work. But by the time the water had finished dripping through my coffee was usually cold. And if I wanted a second cup? Do it all over again. And me and Nescafe were just getting along so…so well! I liked the taste. I liked the convenience. It was great. My ground coffee sat in the cupboard, sad and neglected.

This past summer was a repeat of the year before. I struggled to find a drip coffee that tasted good to me. I, coffee purist, even experimented with flavored coffee. Maybe a nice mild vanilla-flavored coffee would taste good? No, though it smelled good, it tasted like chemicals. I bought a small jar of Nescafe. Used it up. Bought a larger jar. Oh dear. This was serious.

On vacation with the family, my brother gasped in mock horror at the bottle of Nescafe I’d brought along. “You’ve gone to the dark side, eh?” I couldn’t really deny it. Maybe I was a double agent. Behind enemy lines, exploring the dark side of instant coffee culture. Or maybe I was actually a triple agent, professing reluctant use of instant coffee due to present circumstances when, in truth, my allegiance had changed. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe a little.

Some communal coffee drinking with my brother weaned me off a 100% instant diet. Coffee drinking is very social, you know. As with alcohol, it’s much nicer to drink coffee with other people. No one likes to drink alone.

In defense of instant coffee, you do realize that it’s popular the world over? I have no reason to be ashamed of instant coffee drinking. America is one of the few places that scorns instant coffee for mysterious reasons. Starbucks had released its Via instant coffee in Europe long before it attempted to market it in the States. Did you know? We are the lone holdouts. American instant coffee drinkers must sip in secret lest their preferences open them up to the ridicule of their friends and neighbors. Having their instant coffee shipped in plain unmarked boxes. It’s tough. Maybe someday there will be acceptance of instant coffee drinking in America.

I don’t think I’ll be giving up instant coffee anytime soon.

You’ll still love me, right?

Campus Life, China, Food, University Teaching

Knock, Knock, Knock

I met a student at English Corner last week. A very enthusiastic student, she followed me out when I left and walked with me for half of my evening walk around campus. With reservations I gave her my phone number. Never a good idea, really. And I usually don’t. But she was just so . . . something.

Today is Sunday. In the western world that’s the weekend and it is sacrosanct. Around 5:30 PM this student gave me a call. Seeing who it was, I groaned. Yes, Amy, that’s why you shouldn’t give students your phone number. I was “busy” watching Fringe and didn’t feel like talking to her. So I ignored her call. Twice. I know, I know. You’re thinking it and I’m thinking it. What a _____ , Amy.

A short while later someone starts knocking on my door. I thought it was my friend Stephen who likes to mock Sheldon from “Big Bang Theory” who does this three quick knocks on the door in a row followed by your name thing, repeated on a loop until you open the door. Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. Yeah, yeah. Coming.

Imagine my surprise when I open the door and find this student there. How does she know where I live?!? Admittedly most in the foreign teachers live in the same building on the same floor, but there’s still at least 30 apartments. I didn’t actually recognize her at first. Then she said that she’d been calling me, but I hadn’t answered. Uhhhh. Yeah, about that.

And why is she here on my doorstep? She brought me food. KFC, in fact. I don’t know the exact distance of the nearest KFC, but it’s a least 25 minutes away by bus. My mind was not functioning well and I wasn’t sure how to interpret this. Students do seem to have this distressing way of thinking that foreigners are like babes in the wood who do not have the intelligence or know-how to feed themselves. I’m like 60% sure that this wasn’t the motivation behind this surprise visit, but then I can’t entirely discount it . . .

I took the proffered bag and stood there a little dumbly for a few seconds. Was I supposed to invite her in? There was also another older woman with her. Her mother maybe? Whoa. So not prepared for this. I managed a ‘thank you,’ but was still trying to process this. Wah-how-what?! As no invitation seemed forthcoming from me, the student said good-bye and turned to leave. I shut my door and put the bag on my desk to stare at it confusedly. An unexpected turn of events.

Yes, I did explore my food. A chicken sandwich and two crispy chicken wings. And some smelly fish balls that I didn’t touch. I felt a little guilty as I ate, but no sense in letting it go to waste, right? I owe this student a very kind text message and/or phone call. And should probably take her out to lunch this week. I’m sure my reaction was not at all what she had in mind. But—seriously—how did she find out my room number?

It’s a little disconcerting, no?

China, Food, Travel

The Things I Carried

Any trip is certain to result in a number of purchases. Traveling from Hainan to Shanghai to Hangzhou to Suzhou back to Shanghai and finally to Zhuhai meant a lot of opportunities for shopping. Not only was I on the prowl for unique items and future gifts, but also I was resupplying for the spring semester when access to imported goods will be unlikely or very infrequent.

So, the things I carried, starting with the books and working clockwise:

1. Books
2. A National Geographic (English magazines are not available in Zhuhai)
3. Pirated movies and DVDs: the entire LOST show, Downton Abbey, and The Legend of 1900
4. Mini Twix bars (only the 2nd time seen in China)
5. Garlic powder
6. Starbucks Shanghai mug
7. Skor bars
8. Twinnings Vanilla tea
9. Stuffed Cat in distinctive blue and white fabric
10. Drip coffee packets
11. A hanging lucky cat
12. A Chinese seal with my name
13. Another lucky cat
14. Lucky cat earrings (Squee!!)
15. Wooden bracelets
16. Bajillion postcards
17. Special hair thingy for doing updos as seen demonstrated in a Chinese market (only 39 yuan!)

And a closer look at the books I carried.

I reread Atlas Shrugged again on the trip and Brideshead Revisited halfway through. The rest of the books will keep me occupied for the near future.

Reflecting on my packing for the trip I bemoan the items that were lugged everywhere, but never used. These included my ballet flats, my running shoes, my blazer, many assorted toiletry items, a lot of jewelry and decorative hair items. The things I wish I’d brought but didn’t were mainly antibiotic cream and more bandaids. When I cut my toe badly in Hainan I couldn’t find antibiotic cream anywhere. A saleslady trying to be helpful found me a bottle of antibacterial handgel. Well, it might work.

When we checked in at Shanghai airport my bag was over 20 kilos, but I think I will be glad I brought back everything I did!