Food as a cultural marker

My friend Lillian is a Chinese-American chef who has been living in China for the past few years. She has seen more of the country than most native Chinese as she has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, market to market, farm to farm, tea plantation to tea plantation. She is planning to write a book about China’s various farms (which I can’t wait to read.)

Last week she came to lunch on one of her whirlwind visits to New York, and she brought along a 15-year-old Chinese young woman, Yen, who is on her way to Pittsburgh to begin high school. She will live with 15 other young Chinese women, at least during her first year. We batted around this decision — was it best to live with other Chinese students, or should she jump head first into English? Her English was pretty good, but she had only been here for three days and was struggling to understand English spoken at our natural pace.

She picked at her lunch. There was no rice (I have since learned that I should ALWAYS serve rice to Chinese guests), but she soldiered her way through a popover, a roast beef sandwich which Lillian had picked up at a delicatessen, and a salad. I know enough about Chinese visitors to know that American food tastes bland almost to the point of being inedible sometimes, so I offered her some of the fruit salad, which she hadn’t touched yet. It consisted of small pieces of cantaloupe, raspberries, and blueberries.

I offered her a small piece of canteloupe which she regarded in the same way that I would look at the Chinese delicacy, fish eyes. But she ate it. ¬†“It’s sweet,” she said, surprised. ¬†Then she tried the raspberry. “It’s — how do I say this — it’s, um, sour,” she said.

If a Chinese person doesn’t know what canteloupe is, you can assume similar distance between our ways and every other aspect of Chinese culture, including our language. You’ll have to go easy on your assumption that your Chinese guest will know how to greet a host and how to thank a host, how to shake hands, how to cross a street (the Chinese are astounded that cars stop for pedestrians, but might misjudge driver behavior and get in some trouble). Most young Chinese have never cleaned their room, washed their clothes, or cooked a meal for themselves. Their parents take care of all that so the children can study hard. My daughter teaches pre-school, and a two-and-a-half-year-old Chinese boy came to the school for the first time the other day who didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon. His grandmother had always fed him.

Yen has had her first piece of canteloupe and her first raspberry. So far so good. She’ll have countless other sweet and sour experiences here in America. I wish her well. Now I would like to hear about the experiences of at least 15 young Americans who are studying in China.


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