Earlier, I wrote about How “Italian Eggplant” Divided Us, and Then United Us in Love:
Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.
I had spent the evening making one of my favorite dishes for Jun, and found myself shocked by his reaction:
“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?
I was steaming almost as much as that dish fresh from the kitchen — not what I intended for a romantic dinner at home, and definitely not one of my proudest moments. But behind our spat wasn’t merely a difference of opinion, but rather one of culture and upbringing:
[My reaction] had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.
When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.
I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.
Thankfully, we were able to share our own perspectives and ultimately recognize where each of us went wrong in the exchange. And in doing so, we also learned something about our own respective cultural backgrounds. At the same time, it reminded us that the taste preferences we bring to the table reflect the respective cultures of our upbringing. (Jun did in time come to embrace my “Italian eggplant” dish — so much so that he has actually learned how to prepare it for me later on!)
But such a realization and reflection requires a willingness to see cultural differences and, in some circumstances, recognize there isn’t always one “right” point of view. This especially holds true when it comes to what we regard as “strange” foods. The macaroni and cheese that my mother often made us for dinner growing up seems bizarre to my husband, who never consumed this dairy product in his childhood in rural China, let alone with noodles. Meanwhile, the tofu and seaweed dishes my husband enjoyed as a young boy would appear odd or even downright unappetizing to many of my relatives in the US.
I wonder, what if that eggplant clash had happened between people with more rigid views about the world, believing their cultural upbringing was the “right” one? He might have branded her eggplant dish as “weird” and told her to never make it again. She would have become even more enraged — and perhaps might not have told him that his behavior violated the mealtime manners her parents had taught her growing up. Likewise, he probably wouldn’t have acknowledged that his family did things differently. Perhaps one of them might have stormed out of the apartment. And if the two couldn’t reconcile their differences over a simple meal, how could they possibly navigate the even trickier issues that arise in a long-term relationship?
Sometimes, two people of two distinct cultures might sit down to dinner, smell the eggplant, and discover they smelled something different after all. And that’s OK, so long as they make room for those differences at the table.
P.S.: See also my post Why Ignoring Cultural Differences in Cross-Cultural Relationships is Harmful.