Chapter 13: Different Eggplant, Different Cultural Expectations

(photo by JulkaG via Flickr)

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.

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12 thoughts on “Chapter 13: Different Eggplant, Different Cultural Expectations

  • January 26, 2010 at 7:58 am
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    This reminds me of a smores incident my hubby and I had before we were married. I was in Guatemala visiting him at the time and we were out in the middle of nowhere. We knew we had a fireplace where we were staying and he had never heard of smores. Earlier that day I stopped at the store, bought all the ingredients and continued to spend the rest of the day telling him how much he would love smores…that everyone loves smores. That night I perfectly roasted his marshmallow and dutifully created the perfect smore. He took one bite, said “eh” and handed it back to me. ha ha ha I was so insulted, I couldn’t fathom that he would not be kissing my feet for introducing him to one of the sinful delicacies of the American culture. That’s when I learned that my husband doesn’t like sweets! Can you believe that? I person that doesn’t like sweet stuff. Much unlike our palate here in the US, in Guatemala they much prefer bitter or sour things.

    I follow probably about 50+ blogs although I’m not a faithful reader to all. But I must admit I love to read yours because it’s always reminding me of little situations with my husband.

    Thanks Jocelyn
    Melissa

    Reply
    • January 26, 2010 at 3:08 pm
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      Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for the comment, and thanks for sharing! I’m so touched you’re enjoying my blog. 😉

      You know, it’s really fascinating that in Guatemala, the people tend to prefer better or sour things as opposed to the overly sweet American treats. Kind of reminds me of China, because, in China, people don’t like things to be too sweet, either. My husband is not a big fan of typical American desserts — I guess he lucked out to have a wife who is a vegan, and cooks desserts that are not cloyingly sweet (though, I will say, he does love s’mores, ironically — even he can’t resist his sweet tooth).

      Thanks again for weighing in! 😉

      Yours,

      Jocelyn

      Reply
  • January 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm
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    I love the eggplant and the smores stories! In my case, I started cooking regularly for my husband when we got married. He lost a lot of weight in those early weeks. One evening he was picking at his food and he confessed to me, “I don’t like that … yellow stuff on the top.” He didn’t have a strong English vocabulary yet at the time but the yellow stuff was cheese, which was the common denominator for every dish I knew how to cook. After that every time a Chinese relative or friend came to visit I asked them to teach me their favorite dish. Before too long I had built up a broad, cheese-free, repertoire.

    Reply
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  • January 27, 2010 at 12:22 am
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    “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all” is a polite procedure. But it’s also not a polite procedure to lost the temper in such a way.
    Yes. You’re right. Cultures matters. To teach John the wetern procedures is a pretty challenging job since you both in China. But I think since you’re living in China and having a Chinese husband, in a long period, it will be much easier for you to get to know more about Chinese “insults” so that you would have less opportunities to having argues or wars.
    Just some superficial thoughts. Wish that didn’t get your temper. ^_^

    Reply
    • January 27, 2010 at 1:26 am
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      Dear Melanie,

      Thanks for the comment! Wow, that must have been a shock for both of you — your husband not being used to cheese, and you not used to cooking dishes without it. What a smart solution, to learn from Chinese relatives or friends. I bet you’re an outstanding cook now.

      Dear Adam,

      Thanks for weighing in. I can’t agree with you more — losing my temper was completely inconsiderate. That’s something I have struggled with, and especially struggled with when John and I first came together. But over the years, he helped me learn how to manage my emotions. It didn’t always go smoothly, that’s for sure, and I’m still far, far from perfection today. But I can look back on these things, even what I describe in this post, and have a different perspective.

      Anyhow, thanks for your concern, I appreciate it! 🙂

      Reply
  • March 25, 2010 at 12:49 pm
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    oh my goodness…ya, we have been in the same situation. I made lasagna once thinking he wold love it, he hated it, most of the American food he hated except for steak…so I ended up learning how to cook more Chinese things…but ya, I have truly been insulted! lol

    Reply
    • March 26, 2010 at 12:18 am
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      Dear Rhiannon, thanks for sharing — I bet you cooked great lasagna, even if he didn’t appreciate it. Man, it seems like all of the wives of Chinese men I know end up having to do the same — cut down on the American food, and learn to cook Chinese. (After all, my husband gets grouchy if he doesn’t get his sticky rice at least once a day…I just call it part of my “husband management” program). 😉

      Reply
  • April 25, 2010 at 11:41 am
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    I have an almost identical story.
    My boyfriend cooked a beef steak for me, after few bites I couldn’t help commenting that it’s too bloody.
    Well… it opened the floods. He said that he bought the best pieces of beef, checked and re-checked the recipe, and even phoned his mom for advice – all that to be criticized. It seems that I don’t like any of “normal” food (cheese, butter, sour cream) and there is nothing that can satisfy my picky taste.
    It took some time before we could calmly discuss this situation.
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..Chinese Women’s Preconceptions About Western Men =-.

    Reply
    • April 26, 2010 at 9:38 pm
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      Hi Crystal,

      Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting to know that this is apparently an issue with women and men — namely, being unaccustomed to different cuisines. I suppose I’m a little more forgiving than many foreigners b/c I’m a vegan, which means I don’t eat any dairy products. But, definitely food occasionally makes us clash, even today. I’ve finally given up on trying to get my husband to eat Mexican food, and instead just buy it for myself. 😉

      Reply
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