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, 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.

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

The Chinese Student: Behavior #1

I’ve started a number of blog entries only to abandon them halfway through. I suspect the problem is length. I need to write shorter entries. So today I want to briefly tell you about a student behavior that drives me crazy.

In class, mid-lecture, I will hear from somewhere in the class a yawn the size of a cavern, a yawn that sounds like the corners of their mouth are going to split, a truly jaw-breaking yawn. It inevitably occurs when I am mid-sentence, “So, the word vacancy is a noun and the adjective form is—“YAAAAAAAWWWWNNNNN” “Okay, in the middle of paragraph four the author–” “YAAAAAAAWWWN” “..and who can tell me the answer to–” “YAAAAAAAAAWNNN”

I always pause after this occurs, because a mini-wave of rage has rolled over me and I need a minute. And just like an anime movie, it feels like the vein in my forehead starts to throb, and pulse. I would like to turn with eyes of fire and call out the offending student. He/she will humbly rise and apologize to the class for their appalling bad manners. Teacher crosses arms and nods head in satisfaction. Lesson continues minus any more disturbingly loud yawns. Student, abashed, works quietly with head down. If you’ve watched any anime, you’ll be able to imagine the scene just as I do.

However, that’s only an imaginary recasting of this kind of incident. In reality, I pause, chalk in hand, for a moment, collect myself and resume the lesson.

I think any Westerner would agree that it’s not the noise that is so offensive, but what such a yawn represents. Boredom. Disinterest. And no qualms about expressing that to the teacher via a nice loud jaw-splitting yawn. I mean, really, it’s terribly—YAAAAAAAWWWWNNN.

Welcome to China.

Communication, Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Weekend Sleepover

A strange weekend. A change in plans came late Friday night by email, though I had already been appraised by text message. The next two weeks had seemed such an exciting prospect and the cancellation of next weekend’s events left me feeling slightly bereft. I woke Saturday morning feeling unsettled and purposeless. A long phone call from a good friend and a chat via Facebook left me with a slightly improved outlook. Que sera sera I decided.

I was tripping through my guitar chords when Nestani came into my room. Nestani is one of the few people who generally has mastered the art of communicating with me. She knows to use small words, mostly nouns and verbs, and lots of gestures to illustrate. But at that moment she was having a relapse and longs streams of Georgian were flowing out of her. Of course I didn’t understand. She hollered, yes, hollered, for Tamta, my trusty translator. She came at a run, slightly out of breath. “Amy,” pause for breath, “do you want go Jana’s house?”

I was instantly on alert. Jana and her mother both work at my school; her mother is something like the Assistant Principal. I had wiggled out of spending the night at their house the last time I had been invited for dinner. I lamely excused myself on the grounds that I did not have my contact case. A half truth. It is uncomfortable to sleep with my contacts in. I practically have to peel them off my eyes in the morning if I do. But mostly I just saw no reason to enter the world of Georgian slumber parties. Why? I have a perfectly good bed at my house. And my host family more or less understands how I operate. They know how to communicate with me. To stay with a family who does not speak any English at all—a painful prospect.

However, I realized that I had said that I would be happy to stay over some other time when I had my contact case and was prepared to do so. I really did not have any reason to decline. No other plans on the horizon for the whole weekend. Nestani’s reminder to take my laptop and modem made me flush with anger when I realized at least part of the reason for this sudden invitation. Jana’s laptop cord broke. I saw here coming back from town on Friday. 100 lari to replace it. Which is probably half of her monthly salary. I hate feeling used. But I realized I was committed and was it really so hard to take my laptop and share it with her? Get a grip, Amy.

Laptop, modem, contact case, a few books, and a notebook in hand I made my way to Jana’s. Oh, and the dictionaries—both of them. They were one of the first things in my bag. I wasn’t really looked forward to trying to communicate with them. Didn’t they know what they were getting themselves into?

I arrived at Jana’s around 3:00. We went in and put my stuff in the dining room. I looked through 4 photo albums as the girls ran around preparing lunch. At about 4:00 we had a huge lunch. Supra style. The girls hardly ate anything, but were death on me ceasing eating at any point in time. If I did not have something on my plate, they would put something there. After all the food, then there was fruit, nuts, a bowl of chocolates, a plate of cakes, and a bowl of crackers and chocolate. And sugar-laden coffee. And sicky-sweet juice. And cognac. Sensing a theme?

Then I sat on the couch like a, like a . . . veal. Communication was, as I knew it would be, almost impossible. Neither Jana nor her mother understand that they can’t speak to me like they do to other Georgians. I stared at the TV, which I can’t understand, but if I looked engrossed they seemed willing to let me be. Jana and I took turns using the Internet. For hours. Around 8 PM they were indicating it was time for dinner. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t eat a thing. But I ate one wedge of khachapuri and a cup of tea as a peace gesture. Sweets were being constantly held out to me. No, no, no, no. Ar minda, gmadlobt. Meti ar minda, gmadlobt. They were so insistent they were making me feel bad to be refusing all the time.

At 11 PM, after hours of Georgian television and frustrated attempts to communicate on both sides, I indicated I was going to bed. I was not sure whether I was sharing the room or not, which made me a little unsettled. I tossed and turned all night. I woke at 7:30 needing to use the facilities and was grateful it was morning. Trying to get to the bathroom, I couldn’t get the outer door open. I played with the lock and apparently made enough noise to wake up Jana’s mother. Sigh. She got the door open and I made it to my intended destination. Coming back into the house, the Georgian started immediately. I stood mute for a minute and then gestured that I was going back to bed. Couldn’t stand the thought of staying and trying to communicate.

I slept for another hour and a half. After that it was the same thing all over again: a huge breakfast of all the same dishes as yesterday, TV, Internet, limited communication, followed by another huge meal.

I picked my way through breakfast; I barely made it through lunch. Don’t get me wrong. I was eating perfectly normal portions of food. No less than Jana was eating. However, Georgian hospitality is almost militant. They would stuff the food down your throat if they could.  If you are not eating, there is either something wrong with you or something wrong with the food. So you are walking a fine line between honoring their hospitality, reassuring them that everything is delicious, while not betraying what your digestion can handle.

There is a lot of sugar in Georgian food. And these days, I just can’t handle it. I don’t want cognac. I don’t want juice. I don’t want wine. I don’t want sugary coffee. I don’t want sugary tea. I don’t want sweets of any stripe. Fruit is okay. Plain, natural food is okay. But the sugar is killing me. And Jana’s mother was so terribly terribly insistent on me eating everything. It was embarrassing to have to decline so much. But I knew I did not want or need any more food. And I did not want to make myself sick trying to please her.

I was so grateful to leave and go home.

Cultural Differences, Food, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Village Life

A Georgian Wedding: Rambling Reflections

**The longest post ever. Be forewarned.

I went to my first Georgian wedding over the weekend. Having no idea what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised overall. I even enjoyed myself, which is not always a certain outcome.

The wedding was on Sunday, but preparations began in my family days beforehand. Our dishes and china started disappearing and there seemed to be a frenzy of baking and cooking. Nestani made a cake or two. Neli baked the most khachapuri I have ever seen. The girls seemed to spend almost all day helping down at the wedding house. I felt a little lonely since I was not involved. I thought about forcing myself on them, but knew that realistically having the resident guest wandering around the wedding site might be more of a distraction than a help. This is when it stinks not to be able to really express yourself in the language. So I hung out in my room, mostly under the covers because it was freezing cold. I had to do some stern talking to myself because I was feeling oh-so-morose and ready to forget this whole “wedding” business.

In the end, I managed to pull myself together emotionally and physically. I put on my “glad rags” which ironically are all black. To each her own. I was pleased that the family oohed and ahhed when I came downstairs. Finally I was suitably dressed for once. Since I often wear jeans and a sweatshirt (hey, it’s cold!) and I always wear slacks to school (amidst a sea of skirts) I wanted them to see that I can look feminine according to Georgian standards.

So we set off to the wedding, picking our way through the very muddy streets. Fortunately, the wedding house was only about a block away. A crowd of men were, as usual, leaning against the walls and smoking. We walked the gauntlet and went inside the yard. I gravitated towards the group of teachers inside. Since it was a teacher’s son who was getting married I think we had all been invited. There seemed a significant amount of time to kill. I of course had no idea what was going to happen. Since there was nothing else to do, I pulled out the camera and tried to take pictures. Many of the teachers were not the most willing subjects, although some insisted on being in a picture with me.

I had been deserted by all the females of my family once we got inside the yard. They were off helping with more preparations. After awhile, they came to collect me (which is, indeed, how it often feels) and took me to see the inside of the huge tent which had been put up in part of a field. More picking through the mud. I was suitably impressed by the sight. Four very long tables, absolutely covered with all the items necessary for feasting and loaded down with the food itself. I hate to estimate how many they would seat, but I would guess at least 300 if not more. There was a table set up at the front for the happy couple and their attendants and speakers and microphones in another corner for the evening’s entertainment. More pictures.

Once everything had been photographically documented, I returned to my masts’avleblebi, teachers, outside. Car horns began blazing in the distance and we turned to watch a motorcade coming in. The new couple came in, waving and smiling, looking very dapper and/or beautiful: the son in a suit and the bride in a very Westernized gown with fur stole and a bouquet of flowers. I am not sure if they were coming directly from the church. I do know they were coming from Tbilisi which is about 2 hours away. They disappeared into the house; the guests headed for the tent. My teachers claimed good seats–no seating charts or anything like that. I was uncertain when/if we were supposed to eat; I watched my teachers for all the cues. When they ate, I ate.

At our teacher’s training in Kutaisi, the woman in charge told us you knew it was a good party when the dishes were piled 3 deep. Looking at the table when we first sat down, it was impressive, but still only about 2 deep. Little did I know that was just the start of the food! Once the tables were filled, dishes began pouring into the tent: beef in red sauce, fish, hot corn meal, hot corn bread, khachapuri, pork on skewers, roasted beef, eggplant dish, more bread, more fish, more everything! This was on top of all the food already on the table: plates of fruit, plates of vegetables, at least 3 or 4 cold salads, mushroom dishes, meat dishes, turkey, whole chickens, bread, candies, plates of different cakes, etc., etc.

I was astounded at the amount of food on the table. There was no notion of “the table is too full”. Oh no. You just pile it somewhere on top, however precarious the position may be. Georgians do not use what we think of as “dinner plates”. I have yet to see one. All food is eaten and served on little plates that are bigger than a saucer, but a bit smaller than American salad plates. So you have a little bit of this, than a little bit of than, oh I think I’ll try this, maybe I can fit a bit of that. Then you sit and digest for a few minutes and then you start all over again. I tried to try a bit of everything on the table, since many of the dishes were things that have never been served at my house.

Shortly after the feasting began, for that is the only appropriate word, the toasts began. Georgians have a very old and very strong tradition of toasting. Any get- together that involves food and drink, starting as small as a few friends and getting as large as weddings, is called a “supra”.  A supra always has a tamada, who is the toast-master. Sort of a Master of Ceremonies. The tamada can lead the toast or call someone else to give it. When a toast is given, you are supposed to hold your glass up until the speaker is done and only then you drink. And you really should drink the whole glass. These are not like American wine glasses. They are little glass tumblers, probably about 6 ounces, but there was an awful lot of toasting going on. And this is, of course, all local wine, made last year from local grapes.

The toasting and drinking is generally proprietary to the men. Don’t get me started. None of the women were drinking at all to the point that I finally asked my English teacher if women drank at weddings. “Oh, do you want do?” she asked. “I don’t really want any.” I assured her that was fine and poured myself a glass. Don’t mind if I do. Of course I was the only woman as far the eye could see that was drinking. Whatever. I am a guest and therefore feel free to embrace a bit of an “I do what I want” attitude. Later on the German teacher and I had a few gamarjos, the Georgian “cheers”, between ourselves, but that was it as far as the women around me. I am sure other women were drinking somewhere, but nothing like on the level the men were drinking.

After feasting to the point where I could feast no more, there was not much to do. Toasting continued non-stop. There were even mandatory “two glass” toasts. Several of those. I began to get a bit bored and wondered what else happened at Georgian weddings. My backside was also most tired of the narrow benches we were sitting on. Toasts were interspersed with singing, which blared from the speakers at an unseemly volume. I was incredulous that no one else seemed bothered. My sound man father would roll over in the proverbial grave if he had been there.

Eventually dancing began and I perked up. I was very interested to see if any of the traditional dancing would be performed. There are several students at my school who study the dancing, but it does not seem that common. They danced and several other locals danced. Some very impressive dancing by men. They can do these incredible leaps and turns. The dancing is very martial in feel, lots of throwing your chest out, strong arms, and holding of invisible daggers at your waist. But it is very cool, least you think I am not impressed.

The traditional music was also varied with more “pop” type music which encouraged the general audience to participate. I even danced. Mostly because other teachers and my host sisters dragged me up. Yes, semi-astounded family and friends, I do enjoy dancing. I am just overly self-conscious about it. It helps to be in a sea of people who don’t know you. So I danced with my teachers, my neighbors, my family, strangers. Whatever. It was fun.

But the highlight of the night for me was most definitely when I was the recipient of a toast made in my honor. I had seen one of the teachers who I have pegged as “mischievous” going up to the tamada and talking to him. Most worrisome as I could think of no reason for her to do so, but I had a premonition it had to do with me. Sure enough, she came back and the English teacher told me that the tamada was now aware there was a foreign guest in their midst and he would be sure to do a toast for that. I was not amused. There were a lot of people there—hundreds—and I was most uncomfortable with the idea. I dealt with this information as best I could. Although nervous, I thought it was kind of cool. But nervous.

Of course we had no idea when this event was going to happen. I tried to look nonchalant, but did not really feel it. After awhile, I was over it. It would happen if it happened. Sure enough, it finally happened when I had almost forgotten about it. I was taking pictures when someone was like “Amy, they’re talking about you!” and I turned around. I got to my feet and walked to the front from which the tamada presides. Tsira, the English teacher, trailed me for which I was grateful. But then she left me! A huge sea of faces met my glance out. Another woman took the place of my translator as the tamada began speaking.

I, of course, had no idea what was going on. The tamada and then the bride’s father spoke for some time. I listened to my translator, mostly about how I was a guest and they were proud of the friendship between the United States and Georgia. I focused on paying attention to the image I was projecting. I wanted to look friendly, but strong. None of that blushing nonsense. They asked me if I would say a few words about my impressions of Georgia. The microphone was millimeters from my mouth before I could hesitate. I said that I liked Georgia very much, that the people were very hospitable. I thanked them for inviting me to celebrate with them and gave my congratulations to the happy couple. Translation followed.

Then the tamada was holding a glass of wine and I nervously reached for it, thinking it was my time to down a glass. Oh no. He was drinking a glass in my honor. He got down on one knee and drained the glass. A gallant gesture, I think. More speaking. Then after a dozen more gamarjos it was my turn. I wasn’t really sure when I was supposed to get to it, so I hesitated. Then my host mother, who had been at my elbow, was like “you aren’t going to drink?” That was the cue I was waiting for. So I drank my glass in one go, the Georgian way.

After that the evening took on a slightly Cinderella air. More dancing. More pictures. Someone insisted on giving me a Bible in English. Now I have 3 here in Georgia. I have explained to them that I am a Christian Protestant, but maybe they were not sure on the state of my soul. Whatever. I smiled and thanked them. We ate cake. Very good cake. Someone gave me one of the intricate sugar roses to eat. The bouquet was thrown. I did not catch it, but the little boy (?) who caught it, a student at my school, gave it to me later. When I insisted on leaving around 12:30, bemusedly thanking all the nice ladies who so extravagantly looked after me, I even felt a bit Cinderella-ish, though I was returning home in somewhat better condition.

Georgian wedding. A great experience. I can only hope I’ll be invited to another one.