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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