John and I had barely been together for a month, and here we were, arguing about food.
I had offered to cook John, my Chinese boyfriend, dinner, and decided to make my famous “Italian-style eggplant,” an East-West fusion of the standard fish-fragrant eggplant recipe, with tomatoes added to give it that Italian feel. I’d made this dish hundreds of times, for many other Chinese friends. Everyone loved the recipe. Everyone, that is, except for John.
He’s going to love it, I thought, as I sat across from him, watching him choose a few morsels of eggplant with his chopsticks, and eating them with a small helping of rice. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say — until he said it.
“This tastes sour.” He chewed a little more, and frowned a bit. “Did you put soy sauce in this? It’s too heavy — and too salty.”
But his words were too salty for me. Didn’t my parents always teach me never to criticize someone’s cooking? They told me to be grateful for the food others prepared, to smile and thank them. To even make a white lie, if needed (which I practiced often when dining on the dreadful cooking of my paternal grandmother). “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all” was standard operating procedure for the dinner table.
So now, here was my Chinese boyfriend, blasting away years of family wisdom. It was as if he didn’t care about the time I’d spent, or the planning. He seemed to focus more on the salty and sour, and it wasn’t sweet at all.
Neither was my reaction. After my first outburst, the words flowed out just the soy sauce I’d added to the dish — a little too heavy. “I don’t understand what your problem is. Do you know how insulting you are to me right now? To think that you would eat my cooking and have the audacity to criticize me.” I stood up, turning red in the face and slamming my chopsticks on the table. I was on the verge of losing my temper. “What’s wrong with you?”
A chastened John stared down at his rice bowl, and put his chopsticks down. “I’m sorry. In my house, we always used to criticize my mother’s cooking. We’d tell her if it was too salty or too sour or too sweet.”
In the end, John and I reconciled. He apologized for his criticism, and I apologized for such a critical — and explosive — reaction. I was surprised it even happened
Yet, I shouldn’t have been surprised — we’re from different cultures, and we have different expectations. But love is a funny thing. When you’re so close to someone — even if you grew up continents away — you forget all of that. Maybe you even get lost in the adventure of it all, being with someone that you never would have imagined as a child. But then, something happens that jolts you out of this daydream, a clash between different etiquette and customs, even in the smallest, most forgettable circumstances. One day, you wake up and smell the eggplant — and you discover you both smelled something different after all.
What was the moment when you discovered the cultural expectations of you and your Chinese (or foreign) boyfriend or girlfriend were different? How did you handle it?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.