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, Teaching, University Teaching

The Positives

The end of the semester had come! With a great sigh of relief, I end my teaching duties and take up some lighter administrative work for the next month in combination with some Chinese language classes.

The relief is not complete because major changes are in the works for the program I originally came to Xi’an with. My colleague and I have been strongly advocating for the program to be transitioned to something less staff-intensive, as there seems little benefit for the university otherwise. I feel extremely conflicted about my actions at times, sometime regretful and indignantly defiant at others. I was accused of ignoring the program by someone far from it and told that “we should work to solve problems, not just give up.” Insert ironic laugh here.

I recently had the chance to return to south China for a conference and followed it with a few days in Zhuhai. It was an interesting time of reflection and evaluation. It was very heart-healing to be so warmly greeted by old students who met me with cries of “Are you coming back?!?” (See, you haven’t always been a terrible teacher!) Former colleagues seemed genuinely eager to chat with me and all expressed regret that I’d left but hopes that I was enjoying my new life in Xi’an. It was a little hard to find ways to politely and briefly express my year. It was like returning to a place where there existed a happier, better version of yourself, where you wonder what you’d have to do to get that “you” back.

Back in that environment I did feel like I had grown positively in some ways. My Chinese, though by no means great, has improved a great deal. Taxi drivers and I can have very nice long conversations these days. All small stuff, but terribly satisfying to be able to do at all. I can be independent in a way that I wasn’t in Zhuhai where I had some wonderful friends and colleagues who carried me through many situations—a blessing, but dangerous if always available. That does not mean that I can solve major problems (like the Internet being down for a week!!!). Next week, I am going to start a four-week summer Chinese language program. I’m a little nervous, but know that I’ll feel better for having made a concentrated effort while I have some extra time.

On the job front, I will be staying in Xi’an next year to work as the assistant director of the American culture center. We finally got news that all the paperwork has been approved just a few days ago. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my work there this past semester and hope that next year will be more of the same. I also have the nicest boss in the whole world. I am so grateful to work with/for him! I also get to stay in my comfortable apartment next year, in my nice neighborhood (still with a empty guestroom waiting for YOU to come visit!) I get to enjoy four more seasons of the lovely Xi’an weather, exploring more of the city and eating more “delicious snacks.”

So in terms of the traditional definitions of comedy and tragedy, my year has been a comedy—starting high, coming low, then rising again to end high. Though, in the modern usage of the word there had been very little about it that has felt comedic. All’s well that ends well? We’ll see . . .

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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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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.

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Food, Republic of Georgia, Travel

The Pact

I finally made it to Tbilisi, the capital, last weekend. Since I hardly feel that my initial arrival counts, it was truly my first time in the city. I think it is a shame that it was my first time. I am not really sure why I had not gone earlier. Mostly I blame my teaching schedule which goes all the way to 4 PM on Friday afternoons. Makes it hard to take trips to anywhere of any distance.

 Cruising into Tbilisi on our miraculously uncrowded martshutka, food became a topic of conversation. Stories of the wonderous food to be found in Tbilisi have reached even the far corner of Georgia that I reside in. Chinese food. Pizza. Mexican food. McDonalds. Visions, not of sugar plums, but of Western food, were dancing in our heads. Not really sure who initiated it, but someone, maybe even me, said we should eat no Georgian food unless absolutely necessary. A pact! We agreed. I was surprised at the enthusiasm this created even though I felt it myself. We piled our hands in the middle to signal our solemn oath.

My last post got me some comments on how I was obviously over any initial attraction to Georgian food. That is true in part. Some meals here are endured, not enjoyed. However I think it is healthy. It keeps food in perspective and it forcibly reminds me of Kathleen Norris’ discussions on monasteries and aestheticism in The Cloister Walk. While any given meal might be something I despise, it helps me to realize that it is just as likely to be a favorite meal of someone else in the family. It’s the militant hospitality that gets to me more than the actual food itself. But I digress.

Here’s the summary of how our pact played out:

Thursday night (Thanksgiving dinner): Irish pub

We consumed slabs of pure meat, unimpaired by bones, gristle, fat, or skin, and drank excellent wine and/or beer. It was glorious. I would’ve sung a love song to my steak if I’d been asked to.

Friday morning: Swiss Bakery

Ham and cheese croissant and mini-chocolate croissant. We would’ve had coffee (Susy and I) but for some reason it was not available. Even though there was a shining espresso machine behind the counter. How very Georgian.

Friday afternoon: monastery in the middle of nowhere

After an entirely unanticipated hike that only my innate pride and stubbornness got me through, I chugged a Nalgene of water, ate a mandarin orange that our driver gave me (out of pity most likely) and a pastry that Susy had had the foresight to purchase before we left town.

Friday evening: Georgian Restaurant

I felt that this dinner slightly dishonored our pact but we really had no other options. We were all starving. We had barbecued pork, spinach, French fries, mushrooms, and a lot of wine. Susy’s argument was that none of this was something we had on a regular basis in the villages. I guess that was true.

Friday night: porch of our hostel

More beverages, Swiss cheese, and Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. How American is that?

Saturday morning: Muesli, bananas, milk, coffee with . . . creamer! I think I would’ve come to Tbilisi just to buy this. But the muesli was amazing. And so was the milk.

Saturday afternoon: Cheese, salami, bread, salad, and Lay’s Potato Chips purchased at the grocery store

Saturday evening: The worst Mexican food ever. It wasn’t Georgian, but it sure wasn’t Mexican either!

Sunday morning: More muesli, bananas, milk, and lots of coffee with creamer. Heaven.

Sunday afternoon: Leftover cheese and salami for me. Jason chugged the yogurt. We hit a cake shop on the way to the Metro.

The change in food was just that: a change. And we all know the saying that change is good. Change was very good that weekend. And when I got back Sunday night, opened the door and saw my family eating little grilled fish with leftover lobio, I sat down with relatively good cheer and had myself some lobio. Which is proof that all Georgian food is not bad.

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