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, 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, Communication, Family, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Village Life

Airing the Laundry

Many things are easier in China than they were in Georgia. Fortunately, laundry is one of them.

The laundry situation in Georgia was tense. Or at least it felt that way to me. My host family had recently purchased a washing machine. In the village, this was quite significant. Though a television was always a given, there was no guarantee that the average family would have a refrigerator or a washing machine, much less indoor plumbing. I felt quite lucky because my host family had two out of three. Indoor plumbing AND a washing machine. But no fridge.

In the absence of a washing machine, other volunteers were doing their laundry by hand, Oregon Trail style. Can you imagine washing your blue jeans by hand? Scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing them out? A truly unpleasant affair. To be carried out with disturbing regularity to every item of clothing you own, including all your unmentionables.

I was sure of my good fortune having been placed with a washing machine-blessed family; though there were many times I wondered if I would’ve rather had a refrigerator. It’s like one of those semi-impossible decision scenarios: what two things would you take to a desert island, rescue from your burning house, etc.

Nevertheless, the washing machine was there, waiting to be used, to fulfill its purpose in the world. However, the family seemed reluctant to put it to work. They seemed to regard it a little warily—the new technology. Laundry was carried out with gravity. With due reverence and ceremony I would make a petition for use of the glorious machine and the presence of its devoted attendants that were required for its operation. I was not deemed capable of operating the new technology unsupervised. And, following the example of my family, it was communicated to me that its use should be limited. We wouldn’t want to tire it out, now would we?

The realization that I was drawing near to a time when I would need to do laundry was always accompanied by a sinking feeling. There were a number of factors to consider: time of day, weather, the use of the WM by other family members, the use of the kitchen for other purposes, would I be available to immediately remove the clothes from the washer, was washing powder available, was someone available to get the surge protector from the shop, was there water, was there electricity, estimated drying time due to weather conditions, and how quickly I needed the clothes clean and dry.

I am not pulling your leg. This was my reality. I learned from experience to take all of these factors into consideration. Do not assume anything. Do not assume there will be washing power. Do not assume there will be water. Do not assume there will be electricity.

Laundry had a psychological and emotional toll. There was the preparation to ask, the asking itself, the material preparation for laundry (getting the surge protector, attaching the water hose to the sink, inserting the waste hose into the drain, and filling buckets with water for the family’s use while the machine was in use), the actual washing, the immediate removal of laundry from the washer, hanging, drying, folding, and then finally rest. It was an all day affair.

Was I making this more difficult than it had to be? Being overly considerate to my host family? Reading too much into body language and tone of voice? It’s one of those things that I will probably never know. I felt it was a huge inconvenience for me to do laundry as I could not do the whole process myself. And I could not expect that the people who I needed to help me would be available when I wanted them. And I could not be sure that even if the people were available that all the required facilities would be available. It was maddening. I developed a laundry psychosis. I wished I didn’t have to do laundry. Ever.

My solution to this issue was to do my laundry as infrequently as possible. I usually did one gigantic load of everything I owned every 10-14 days. Surely they could not begrudge me one load of laundry in that time frame? I don’t know.

I didn’t enjoy doing laundry in Georgia. Far too emotionally fraught it was.

China is much better. Independence in doing laundry, as in other things, is very important. Materially the situation has not changed. I have a washing machine and I air dry my clothes. But everything is on my terms. Laundry: as often as I need it and whenever I want to do it. If I spill something on my clothes—no cause for concern! I can pop it in the wash as soon as I get home. I can do laundry at a time of day that is convenient to my work schedule, not just when I can count of the aligning of the multitude of factors that are out of my control. No one is pounding up the stairs 2 second after the cycle finished, telling me that I need to come immediately to get my clothes. Nor am I sitting around waiting for the perfect moment to ask if I can use the washing machine.

For those living in an apartment building, the balcony becomes the center of all laundry operations. The washing machine is usually located here. For drying, there are a number of convenient devices that make the most of the available space. Installed on the balcony ceiling is a drying rack, which requires a little pronged pole to lift your clothes on hangers up to it. It’s fun. Just don’t drop your wet clothes on the dirty, dusty balcony floor. I also have a clothesline which I use for heavy items like jeans and towels. A portable drying rack is used for shirts and other small items. Widely popular for socks and underwear is a little double hoop with dangling clothespins that can be hung on the clothesline or from the upper rack. It’s very space efficient.

So on my little balcony I have enough places to hang a fair amount of laundry. The only challenge is drying our dismayingly white sheets. This requires a complex operation involving a lot of hangers, clothespins and most of the upper drying rack. It also obscures my view completely until they are dry. But it gets the job done. And I feel the usual feelings of domestic tranquility as I bring in my laundry to fold it and put it neatly away.

It’s a real improvement for me here. This thought crossed my mind last weekend as I was putting a new load in and taking down a load that had dried. I have not changed my mind about Georgia. I still love it and am actively plotting my return. However, it was very, very complicated living in a host family, in a village, and working at a school where you cannot truly communicate with people, where no one speaks your language. The effort required for laundry is perhaps representative of so many of my struggles there. The longer I’ve been in China, the more I’ve been amazed at what I survived in Georgia. China has been a cake walk in comparison.

Communication, Cultural Differences, Family, Food, Social Customs, Village Life, Weather

Red Eggs, Wine and Mud

Ah Georgian Easter! I feel I owe everyone at least some description of how it went down.

Red eggs? Check.
Chocolate? Check.
Relatives? Check.
Cemeteries, supras, and wine? Check.
Food, food, and more food? Check.
An enjoyable weekend? Check.

Arriving back in the village Saturday evening, the cooking was going full speed ahead and relatives were already present in the house. Around 11 o’clock, after I’d already retired to bed, local kids came a-hootin’ and a hollerin’ up to our gate for their red eggs. I threw on my jeans and went down to watch. A short performance, but it created a sense of anticipation for what was the come.

Sunday morning, after a supra-style breakfast and the arrival of more relations, we began to walk to the cemetery. This is what you do on Easter. You go the cemetery, take a loaded basket, sit around your ancestors’ graves and have a supra. I like it. My host family seemed surprised that I didn’t know where all my family was buried and that I don’t regularly visit. I felt a little ashamed of our collective American selves.

The cemetery was on top of a steep hill and since it has rained for about the last 6 weeks the mud was pretty incredibly. Though I was wearing boots, I was worried about slipping and spectacularly sliding down the hill. Somehow, very carefully, I made it all the way to top. Hands on waist, I admired the view.

This cemetery held the graves of Vaxo’s parents and grandparents, so Tamta, Teo, and Giorgi’s great-great-grandparents. Our supra table was assembled and most of the men sat down to eat. I wasn’t hungry yet, so I went visiting with the girls. It ended up being one long visit with the family of one of my favorite students, Nino. Her mother is a teacher at my school and her older brother is a student at the other school and speaks very good English. The relatives were very curious about me, but very kind. It would have made them so happy if I could’ve eaten something, but I just wasn’t hungry. But I still left with an orange, red egg, and chocolate in my pocket. And several glasses of wine sloshing around inside. And an invitation to their house the next day.

Our time in the cemetery was not as long as I expected, but the weather was not very obliging. It had been alternating between raining and drizzling the whole time. Didn’t really encourage lingering. Yet in the attempt to leave, I ended up two pieces of cake the fuller.

I’d been assured that the way down the hill would be better than the way up. Uh. No comment. As I feared, going downhill in deep mud is much more treacherous. Wading was really the only word for it. We were making our way down when I started getting strong suction noises from my boots as I lifted them out of the mud. I wasn’t concerned until Tamta called my attention to the fact that the bottom of my boot was no longer attached. Oh dear. Almost fully unattached. I figured maybe I could sort of slide on that foot. But with the next step, the bottom came off entirely. Oh dear, oh dear. That left my foot protected in only the furry lining of the boot that remained and my sock. The furry lining was the next thing I lost. In moments I was making my way down the hill with only a sock on my right foot. And quite a ways to go. It wasn’t so much the mud I was worried about, it was then rocks covered under it. Only a sock on one foot, remember? With the help of my host sister I finally made it back to the house. Where I headed right for the water spigot. The family got a big kick out of me peering at them through my now bottom-less boot.

After cleaning up and inspecting the holes in my socks, I took a break in my room for awhile. I had a feeling the evening would be another long supra. So I was taking a rest like the rest after Christmas breakfast or Thanksgiving dinner. A few hours later I came downstairs prepared for more feasting. More guests had arrived. They looked familiar, but it didn’t come to me immediately. The bride and groom from the wedding! The one I went to in the fall. I didn’t realize that they were such close friends of the family. Supraing ensued and it followed the usual course.

Neli and Nestani were very intent on making sure the new wife ate plenty of everything. Generally I am now exempt from the intense cajoling to “Jame! Jame!” for which I am grateful. So I could sit back and enjoy the show. It’s very entertaining when you are not on the receiving end. The look of consternation when something is summarily dumped on your plate without you putting it there. Ah. Those were the days.

When our guests were stuffed to the gills, they said their goodbyes and left for home. The table was still swimming with food; it looked like we’d hardly made a dent in it. But it’s the Georgian way. Gracious hospitality. Overabundance. It would be disgraceful for a plate to be emptied and not immediately refilled. Which of course leaves plenty of leftovers for the days to come.

That was just Day One of Easter. There was still Monday and Tuesday. And there’d been Thursday and Friday before I even got home. The next two days were much the same as the one before. Supras, food, wine, and lots and lots of family. Overall the family is very welcoming to me, but I am always saddened by the language barrier that prevents me from really joining in.

Today is Thursday and stale paska is still sitting on the table. All the leftover red eggs are being diced up and transformed into egg salad. Cake pans with a few remaining squares are lingering in the hall outside my room. A few tangible reminders of the weekend.

With the passing of Easter is appears we are finally receiving our spring weather. Positively heavenly the last few days.

The last week of April and it appears spring is finally here. Thanks, Easter.

Food, Social Customs, Village Life

Approaching Easter

Things have been picking up a bit of late. The clock is ticking and I’m realizing that some things are now or never. I’ve spent the last two weekends visiting friends in other cities, visits that I had been saving for some “future date”. Both visits were excellent. Great to see friends and also nice to take a break from the village.

Last Sunday we were walking in Kutaisi and I was noticing that many people were carrying little bundles of branches. It took me awhile to put it together, but then it came to me and I exclaimed out loud “Palm Sunday!” I’d totally forgotten. Not a lot of palms in Georgia so it appears that they substitute some other locally-available tree. Industrious people everywhere were selling “palms”, including robed altar boys outside one of the larger churches. This Palm Sunday joined the ranks of some other memorable Palm Sundays. (Jenn?)

Aghdgoma, Easter, is this coming Sunday, as I’m sure you all know. There is a very nice vacation padding Easter in Georgia, with no school the Thursday and Friday before it and the Monday, Tuesday after it. Man, which we had that in the States. It is truly an ideal time to take a trip somewhere and I think the vast majority of teachers will be going somewhere. However, as I missed Christmas, New Year’s and Three Kings’ Day, I really wanted to be in the village for Easter. So I am taking a trip for Wednesday through Saturday and will be back in time for Sunday.

My friend Jason and I will be going to the largest city on the coast, Batumi, which has a rep for being the most Westernized, resort-like place in Georgia. This really isn’t the best time to go weather-wise, but I can’t imagine staying the village for that many days with nothing to do. And I’ve wanted to see the Black Sea since I arrived. I know I’m invited on a school excursion to Batumi in June, but that will likely be a rather structured trip where I will not be free to do what I want. So if nothing else, this trip should be relaxing. I’m really hoping we get at least a little bit of sun.

In talking with my host family and students, the number of traditions surrounding Easter continues to surprise me. There is egg dying, but all eggs are dyed red. No Easter Bunny and no Easter baskets. Families go to the cemeteries and picnic there around their ancestors’ graves on tables and chairs installed there expressly for this purpose. Eggs are rolled on the gravestones in a sort of game. There is church for those who choose to attend. One devout girl told me EVERYONE goes to church. I was highly skeptical and sought confirmation from other students. As expected they vigorously shook their heads and said that SOME people go to church. I’ve heard mention of a bonfire on Saturday as well as a tradition of children going house to house singing and dancing in return for red eggs. There is the cracking of eggs, something I saw in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but don’t really understand. My students taught me the greeting and response used on Easter which is a direct parallel to the He is risen/He is risen indeed we say in the States. On and on and on.

So from what I understand, Easter is a sort of Day of the Dead, plus Easter, plus Halloween.

Should be interesting.

Communication, Family, Food, Social Customs, Village Life

Potatoes and the Second Coming

I thought maybe I’d missed it today—the Second Coming. Returning home from school around 3:30, the house was empty. This in itself was not particularly surprising, but by 4:30 I was wandering around downstairs wondering where everyone was. The girls should have been home from school by then and it was very rare for Nestani to stay at school that long. Grandpa Vakho could usually be spotted somewhere around the house and Boy Giorgi I should normally be able to just hear. Neli was in Tbilisi and I thought Beso must also be there doing a job. It was just really strange to home alone considering that with me the household now numbers 8 people. How likely was it for 7 to be gone all at once?

The second problem was I was ravenous. Breakfast was at 9:30 and it was the usual serving of simple carbohydrates. This was supplemented by a cookie and coffee at school. Seven hours later I was hungry, hungry, hungry. An understandable reaction I think. And there was nothing to be had in the kitchen except bread. Whenever Grandma Neli leaves us for any amount of time we definitely suffer on the food side of things. No hot lunch waiting when we all get home from school. Instead poor Nestani walks in the door and has to immediately start cooking. This was the third day since Neli had left and we had used up the usual stockpile of leftovers. Just empty pots remaining.

The situation seemed ridiculous to me. Perfectly competent cook starving in a house with food stores that simply need preparation. So I decided to cook my own lunch. And since I didn’t want to use up any special supplies, I decided to go with the all-time Georgian favorite: fried potatoes. Fool proof recipe and plenty of potatoes in the pantry.

Although I attempt to assist with food preparation on occasion and have prepared a few dishes/desserts for my host family, I believe they still labor under the impression that I don’t know how to boil water. I knew that them coming home (assuming the Rapture hadn’t truly occurred) and finding me cooking would be gossip for our neighbors and all the teachers for a week. And there would be all those ridiculous surprised expressions and congratulatory exclamations like Maladetz and Ho-cha, as if this was a remarkable event. So the goal was to work quickly. If I could be nonchalantly eating my potatoes when they walked in the door, there was much less for them to talk about. The deed would be done. Caught in the act would mean they would check everything I did and most likely enact a coup on the acting chef—me.

Peeling potatoes with a knife if much harder than it appears. This I have learned in Georgia. The peeler is a marvelous invention. I almost brought one back with me to Georgia so I could help with all the peeling that goes on. But it seemed so sissy that I decided not to. So I struggled through my potatoes, nervously checking out the window for approaching family members the whole time.

Grandpa Vakho was the first to spot me. His comment was that Tamta would be home soon. Yeah, make the 17 year-old cook for the 26 year-old. Love that. I shrugged my shoulders and said I was hungry.

By the time Tamta showed up and I got all the expected exclamations and furtive looks at my progress, all the potatoes were peeled and were being cut into the pan. Yes, I can peel potatoes and cut them. I didn’t feel there were enough potatoes to satisfactorily feed 7 people so I was cutting a few more. Everyone minus Neli would be showing up sooner or later and there was nothing else to eat. Tamta didn’t feel this was necessary and gave me this strange look that made me feel like was 6. I found this rather irritating and, slightly sharply, told her to talk in English. This was unnecessary retaliation. In my defense, it’s hard being treated like a child by someone 10 years younger. And would it really kill us to have some leftovers sitting around? Plus I was planning on eating a significant amount of potatoes. Starving, remember?

By 5-ish or so we were finally sitting down to potatoes. It was only Tamta, Vakho and I. The fewer witnesses the better. The potatoes tasted like . . . potatoes. The only thing I noticed was my peeling job hadn’t meet with Georgian standards. Some bits of peel and potato eyes were being left on the edges of plates. My mother would say that’s where all the vitamins are.

An interesting day altogether. Glad I got a chance to work on my potato peeling skills. Obviously need more practice as my fingers and wrist were aching when I finished. Forget using a keyboard. Potato peeling is carpal tunnel waiting to happen.

Religion, Social Customs

Considering the Patriarch

One of my first weeks in Korbouli I had the day where I and most of my village waited for the Patriarch. It ended up being kind of a downer and shaped some of my initial opinions of this Patriarch man.

The Georgian Patriach, Ilia the Second, is what the Pope is to Roman Catholics. Not being a Catholic, that’s that much less of an understanding I have for the Georgian’s relationship with their Patriarch. I think it’s all a little creepy. That’s the Protestant in me speaking, I know.

I admit to being highly suspicious of religious leaders. And not just of popes and patriarchs, my skepticism extends down the church hierarchy. I’m not a big fan of deacons either. Or elders. In fact I seem to suspect almost anyone in a position of authority. (Could it have something to do with the fact that most of them are men?)


I’ve kept an eye on this Ilia Meore after the initial disappointment of my village. He’s on TV regularly. His territory is of such a size that he seems able to get around quite a bit. The poor Pope just cannot compete. The Patriarch baptizes babies; he visits schools; he blesses hats (really!), he leads special services. He’s a busy man. And the people adore him. I’m positive that his public approval rating far exceeds that of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian President.

So I believe my opinion of the Patriarch has softened a bit. It was inevitable. Of course he can’t stop at every village he drives through. Though maybe he could at least have slowed down.

I found a very interesting CNN clip on YouTube about the Patriarch that gave me some additional perspective.

Have a look: