On Eggplant, Intercultural Love and Making Room for Cultural Differences at the Table

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.

Intercultural Love Leads to More Creativity? Study by MIT Prof Says Yes

Creativity doesn’t usually come to mind when we think of intercultural love — but it should, thanks to the 2017 study from MIT assistant professor Jackson G. Lu titled “Going out” of the box: Close intercultural friendships and romantic relationships spark creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Here’s a summary of the researchers’ findings from the study [emphasis added]:

…we found that close intercultural romantic relationships and friendships predicted important creative outcomes. As a two-phase longitudinal study, Study 1 found that MBA students who dated someone from another culture during their program performed better on both divergent and convergent forms of creativity at Phase 2 (accounting for creative performance at Phase 1 and other control variables). Using an experimental design, Study 2 revealed that reactivating a past intercultural dating experience led to higher creativity than reactivating a past intracultural dating experience; importantly, this effect was mediated by cultural learning. Comparing the duration versus the number of both intercultural and intracultural romantic relationships, Study 3 found that only the duration of intercultural relationships significantly predicted the ability of current employees to generate creative names for marketing products. Extending the preceding findings to the “Big C” creativity (Simonton, 1994), Study 4 found that professional repatriates’ frequency of contact with American friends positively predicted both entrepreneurship and workplace innovation back in their home countries….

Furthermore, the study offers some insightful advice about the importance of being deeply engaged and open to cultural differences [emphasis added]:

Importantly, the current findings suggest that people cannot simply “collect” intercultural relationships at a superficial level, but instead must engage in cultural learning at a deep level. When in an intercultural relationship, an individual should not eschew cultural differences but rather embrace them, because such differences enable one to discern and learn the underlying assumptions and values of both the foreign culture and the home culture (Cheng & Leung, 2013; Leung & Chiu, 2010). Without close social interactions, it can be difficult for individuals to juxtapose and synthesize different cultural perspectives to achieve cultural learning and produce creative insights.

Previously, I had written about Why Ignoring Cultural Differences in Cross-Cultural Relationships is Harmful, pointing out the negative consequences of this colorblind approach. But this study from Lu highlights the tremendous creative benefits that come from welcoming and exploring cultural differences in a thoughtful way, and the findings indicate that such advantages wouldn’t come to those who disregard cultural differences.

This fascinating research has also led me to reflect on my own intercultural relationship and the ways in which it may have boosted my creativity (such as the founding of this very blog). And I also thought about the many other creative folks I’ve encountered in intercultural relationships here in China, from bloggers and writers to entrepreneurs, artists and musicians. How much has their creative output benefited from loving outside the lines?

In any event, the study certainly stands as compelling evidence for why everyone should embrace meaningful intercultural ties in their lives, including romantic ones.

What do you think about this study?