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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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Food for Thought    

By Peter V
3933 Views | 8 Comments | 5/22/2016 9:49:08 AM

I once interviewed a Chinese poet who made an interesting, probably inaccurate, but ultimately insightful claim about intercultural relationships.  Asked why the number of Chinese men who dated western women was relatively small compared to the number of Chinese women who dated western men, he replied in one word: breakfast.  Chinese men had a clear idea of what they wanted for the first meal of the day (and for every other meal as well) and were not interested in the compromise, negotiation, or god forbid change, in dietary habits that a relationship with a western woman would entail. While we in the West obsess about appearances or fret about emotional compatibility, the Chinese mind, as is its nature, focuses on a practical, earthy, and ultimately much more relevant issue. Looks fade and disagreements are inevitable; but meals are forever, a permanent part of the marriage landscape.

 

Like any potential area of conflict in a marriage, which cuisine a couple will consume is a decision best reached in a conscious, intentional, and the thoughtful manner.  If a Catholic and a Jewish couple were to have a child, it would only make sense to have some discussion before deciding which if any religion that child would be raised in and not just imagine the issue would simply resolve itself.  The comparison between different cuisines and different faiths seems appropriate.  As with faith, most of the world is raised on a single cuisine, and are not only passionately fond of it, but come to believe, on the basis of no rational evidence, that its own cuisine is superior to all others.  And while I have yet to learn of any wars started over this issue as have been commenced over the matter of faith, I have witnessed my share of heated arguments devoted to the topic carried out with the intensity of a religious debate (proving my observation that the passion of a discussion increases with the lack of proof available on the subject). Granted, what type of meals you and your love will be sitting down to on a regular basis is probably not on your mind as you flip through profiles. Another of the primal appetites is driving the day at this point. But somewhere between the first flashes of infatuation and saying the words “I do,” it would, I suggest, be in the interest of the long term health of your intercultural relationship to take up the topic. Indeed, unlike some areas of discrepancy in a marriage, differences in the area of cuisine cannot simply be avoided. A couple who disagree radically on politics can simply consent not to discuss politics. But an intercultural couple cannot agree just to not eat.

 

When it comes to the matter of cuisines, there are a triad of strategies an intercultural couple might employ: capitulation, alienation, and negotiation. Capitulation is the decision—implied or explicit—to adopt one of the cuisines as the preferred cuisine.  A couple operating in capitulation mode has the understanding that, unless a specific agreement is reached or a mention is made, this preferred cuisine will be the one prepared and consumed at all meals.  In my experience the dominant default cuisine for intercultural couples operating in this mode is Asian.  This is a combination of a Chinese woman’s attachment to her own country’s cuisine—which falls somewhere between her passion for her parents/children and her love of country—and a western man’s inherent laziness. Lenny Bruce observed that “men will f**k anything: chickens, dirt.” I would add they will eat anything, so long as it is prepared for them.

 

However, I suspect there are more than a few Western men who would no more consider switching cuisines than they would contemplate swapping religions, who would give up their guns before their mean and potatoes, who would fast before consuming a bowl of noodles for breakfast, and for whom rice is as unnatural an accompaniment for dinner as, well, broccoli. To these Western men who would impose their dietary preferences on their Chinese partner, I say simply: Gook luck with that.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, each member of the couple may opt to consume his or her own country’s cuisine.  This strikes me as a dangerous route to take.  Dinner possesses a significance that goes beyond the materiality of the food consumed.  It represents a reconnecting at the end of the day, a metaphysical function that is ill served by eating different foods and using separate cutlery.  Indeed, it is not too much to imagine a slow slide from separate meals to separate bedrooms, separate vacations, separate lives. There seems a special danger from this strategy for the Chinese woman. Just like someone who grows up in the desert will be especially impacted by a move to the Midwest, so the communal nature of the Chinese meal—where not only food but dishes and hence spittle and bacteria are shared—makes it more than likely that the Chinese member of the couple will be especially impacted by the alienation involved in this style of eating.

 

And then there is the middle way.  By the middle way when it comes to eating and marriage I mean any dietary strategy that attempts to combine both countries’ cuisine on a regular basis.  Living for a half-decade in China instructed me in the middle way, provided me daily with examples of its usefulness and, in the end, transformed me into one of its greatest advocates. It seemed a refreshing alternative to the polarization gripping my country – a polarization that, as anyone who has followed recent American politics can tell you, has only worsened with time.

 

 I would be lying, however, if I were to say that it was philosophy alone that motivated my search for a culinary path in our marriage that would include both Western and Asian foods. I lived for five years in China—a time during which I not only sampled numerous regional cuisines but also acquainted myself in depth with the food of one particular area, Sichuan. So when I declare unequivocally that I cannot exist on a diet of Chinese food, I am not expressing an irrational preference for my own country’s cuisine but proffering a piece of knowledge gained--as all true knowledge is gained--through painful experience.

 

I am also confessing to a secret shame.  My Peace Corps training made it a point of pride for us to integrate as completely as possible into the local culture.  We were encouraged to eat the same foods, speak the same language, live in the same apartments, and shop the same stores as the locals –and provided with the poverty level stipend specifically designed to prevent us from indulging in western conveniences.  So I tried, believe me I tried, to subsist on a purely Chinese diet.  My efforts, however, were undermined by the realization that extended exposure to Chinese food invariably resulted in extended time in Chinese bathrooms. Nor was this simply a coincidence, as the aforementioned bathroom time was significantly reduced by a WFI or western food intervention. Slowly, reluctantly, but inevitably, I was compelled to confess my inability to subsist on a purely Chinese diet. Hence not only philosophy but necessity as well drove me to the middle way of intercultural marital eating.

 

Of course to embark on a middle way in marital cuisine is to solve one problem only to encounter another.  How exactly is such a strategy to be implemented?  Does one simply alternate days of western and Chinese Food?  Or include dishes from each culture at every meal?  Is it possible to invent some fusion cuisine that can consistently combine both traditions?  We’ve actually tried all of the above as well as numerous variations on these themes. We have consumed typical Chinese dishes one night and broiled steak or salmon the next, devoured stir-fried eggplant along with blueberry pancakes at a single sitting, and eaten “dueling noodles”—one bowl ladled with tomato sauce and served with a fork, the other drenched in soy sauce and Sichuan peppers and accompanied by chopsticks.

 

And although I would prefer a more systematic solution, this ad hoc approach seems to be working so far. Unfortunately this does not leave me much in terms of specific advice I can provide for those journeying on a similar culinary path, except to say that the principles that guide us through this situation—compromise and mutual respect—are probably pretty good principles to apply to all areas of an intercultural relationship.

 

Bon appetit!

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(Showing 1 to 8 of 8) 1
#2016-05-22 09:53:41 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Peter, I can't agree more with you that adapting to each other's choice of food is, in the long run, the single most important factor in how long a Western/Chinese cross cultural relationship will last. And I would say that it is generally up to the Western half to do most of the adapting because probably no culture in the world is as taken with their own food as are the Chinese. Not even the French.

I would venture to guess that upwards of 80% of Chinese women and virtually all Chinese men over the age of 30 will steadfastly refuse to change to a diet that is more than one or two meals a month that is non-Chinese. And those 2 meals they likely won't actually eat, just stare at woefully.

I have known many Chinese who have tried living in North America, Europe or Australia and not lasted more than a few months because they couldn't find anything they considered edible. And at the very bottom of their list of foods, the least edible of all, Western Chinese Food.

My wife is one who has taken to many Western foods, and cooks a variety of Western dishes to the quality of a professional chef, but she nearly vomits at the mention of eating American Chinese.

Food, like Scotch, is a developed taste. If you can find the food of any culture that is prepared well by a cook who knows what he/she is doing, I believe it is possible to like and adapt to such food. (Well, maybe not the food of Scotland. Whiskey yes, food no.(giggle)) But since we North Americans have already adopted diets made up almost entirely of nutrition deficient, tasteless crap, I suggest it is easier for us than Chinese to adapt to the other's cuisine.

I mean Chinese think that every meal is a social occasion, every bite is an experience worth lengthy discussion. Food is important to them. They spend hours each day enjoying their meals. We treat dining like it's a necessary but unwanted chore. If it will keep our eating time under 20 minutes we'd eat a hockey puck for lunch. So if our marriages depend on it, and everything else is working fine, I suggest that the Western half better buck up and start enjoying that real Chinese food that is staring at them from their plates.

The best choice would be to do as you have done with your new bride and try to accommodate each other, and that is how it has worked out between myself and my wife too. But in our case I could have easily adapted to Chinese food and just needed maybe a Western meal once or twice a month. However my wife prefers a diet that is about 50/50 Western and Chinese, so I had it made from the get go.

But for guys who cannot adapt at all, and are unwilling to partake of any Chinese food, (and Western Chinese does not count) I wish you luck but I don't give you a snowball's chance in hell of having a lifelong marriage with a born and raised in China woman. If you are one of those guys, read Peter's article carefully and give it some serious thought.

This was a very important article Peter. I'm looking forward to more as you work your way to a (hopefully) happy, long lasting marriage. 8)

#2016-05-22 15:12:30 by Barry1 @Barry1

@woaizhongguo

"extended exposure to Chinese food invariably resulted in extended time in Chinese bathrooms"

This is exactly correct, Peter.

I'm currently in Sichuan Province and the food here makes me go to the bathroom two or three times per day. Plenty of toilet paper readily at hand is crucial. On one occasion, in the middle of a teaching session, to my chagrin I had to visit the toilet not once but twice! The students probably understood my condition as they're also constantly running in and out of the classroom. (sweat)

An acronym for this affliction is LBS. I'll write what this means at the bottom of my comment here.

The food here is just too damn spicy for my taste. I have a suspicion they load it up with MSG as well, an additive banned in many Western countries. The food in this province is one of the genuine negatives about my stay in China. I just don't like it much. I can't wait to get home and eat a nice piece of fresh salmon.

Yet in other areas that I've visited around Nanjing or Shanghai, the food is good. So where one lives in China can play an important role in whether or not you'll like living and eating there.

LBS by the way stands for loose bowel syndrome. (giggle)(giggle)

Good work, Peter.

#2016-05-22 20:22:38 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Good article and good comments from John.

Living on Chinese food (in China) is not too difficult. It's much easier to include a lot more veggies too, because the Chinese really know how to make them tasty.
When I came to China some 18 months ago, I was a full-on carnivore. Now, I seldom eat meat unless I cook it myself.

The hope of finding a 'good' western restaurant in China long dissipated after I was served steak with coffee sauce a few years ago.
OK, so you may find a half-decent pizza joint, but that's not exactly a western 'restaurant', is it?

Like many men, Barry has always tole me that he hates cooking. I, on the other hand, love it. But there has to be some kind of 'happy-medium'

As John rightly says, Chinese people consider food a 'celebration' whereas many of us 'laowai' just eat out of necessity.

Right now I have a student (male), from my school, who will go to study in Canada after the summer break. His parents used to send him to my place for English lessons, but now he comes for cooking lessons.

Nothing special, just simple, basic meals such as quiche, home-made burgers etc, but food that is not expensive and is quick and easy to knock up.

Since living in China, I have had to adapt. I have learned new skills because I have had to. There are certain 'luxuries' that us westerners enjoy that cannot be bought in local supermarkets.
Therefore I have had to learn how to make my own Christmas mincemeat, Christmas puddings, marmalade and pork-pies (with genuine lard pastry, after making the lard)
You can't find a decent sausage in my QLV, so I make my own. All of the above takes time - lots of time, but if we want something that we cannot buy, then we have to learn to make it.

It's the same with western/Chinese food. Many restaurants use too much oil and lots of MSG, so the 'healthy' food is not so healthy at all.
Rice-cookers (with a steamer basket) are capable of steaming anything you want - even potatoes.
It's said that steaming is the most healthy and nutritious way to cook. I'm already on my second rice-cooker because my first one packed-up.

Cooking isn't an 'art', it's a basic necessity, and once you begin to experiment in the kitchen, it's easy to combine Chinese and western food into something that can be enjoyed by everyone - no matter where they come from

#2016-05-23 12:58:20 by Anniehow @Anniehow

Insightful observation from experiences makes an interesting read.

Speaking as someone who had an American roommate for two years and lived overseas for a few, I agree diet is a crucial issue. I consider myself to be quite open-minded and flexible as a result of years working with foreigners and abroad. However, these past few years have witnessed how stubborn my stomach is....while living abroad, for more than once the craving for hand-made Chinese noodles drove me on taxi rides in the evening to a Chinese restaurant where the bowl of noodles cost half the price of the taxi fare.

On the other hand, despite years of overseas living experience, I have never suffered from cravings for Western food. While I like good steak, mashed potato , spaghetti ,fried banana , masala chicken and Java chicken soup, absence of these food for an extended period of time does not drain my stomach. On the contrary, uninterrupted period of Western meals make my Chinese stomach feel "empty".

Food is powerful. Choose your table carefully.;)

#2016-05-24 00:47:43 by WarmLifeGz7 @WarmLifeGz7

@JohnAbbot You wrote --- I mean Chinese think that every meal is a social occasion, every bite is an experience worth lengthy discussion.

------------------
(an alternative to using all Uppercase (smile smile )
Yes, certainly indeed every meal is more or less (usually more) is a social time for getting together around a round table (unlike a square or rectangular shaped dining table )
Whether it was in a school, home, restaurant the round table that might even have a large circular movable area where the various dishes would be placed was the center of attention during meal times -- (with spoiled kids grabbing their bowls of food and racing back to the TV or to play computer games or whatever ... ). I even recall watching preschool kids walk around these tables whacking adults (including grandparents -- which was shocking to me since I had already lived closely with Chinese for too many years at that time ) -- with whatever toy or object they might have in their hands. Inside western style restaurants like KFC McDonalds Pizza Hut et al... spoiled kids running amok through the restaurant like it was a Zoo or amusement park . I noticed that the parents would do very little about this social behavior or might become aggressive IF the staff or a foreigner might complain . The percentage of these incidents are frequent but very few in number compared to the rest of the dining crowd. Social experience? definitely . Hours were used to prepare more than enough dishes. I have often been surprised at the amount of dishes served during meals . I recall my mother and others telling me that I should finish eating everything on my plate since there were starving people in China. (obviously true during many eras in Chinese history -- but after 1988 when I arrived I seldom or rarely noticed any people starving -- again, of course there are always homeless or extremely poor people living in many places ) Meals certainly lasted what seemed to be a very long time indeed, as more dishes arrived after dishes until either fruit (usually watermelon slices or orange ) or soup was brought to the dining table which is round ( if one thinks about this phenomena -- a person could visualize "sense of community or belonging" as compared to the individualistic portions served upon a plate for each individual sitting at a rectangular shaped table with it edges marking off boundaries -- ) also there usually exists a common ladle or large spoon to partake of the various dishes moving around in a circular motion (either clockwise or counterclockwise). depending on the social situation -- everyone partaking of these dishes with their own chopsticks is common enough. spreading diseases ? i often thought about this situation but through countless, endless meals I have yet to have attracted any viral infection or illness (unlike eating in a small Chinese shop along Beijing Road in Gz or in a few other places - fortunately for me there have only been a few cases ) There is also etiquette involved as well - but then again this depends on where and when and who you are dining with (formal and informal ) . Once I was really surprised when a Chinese woman put food into my bowl since we were not even friends at that time (usually Wives or GF might do this). Conversation topics? Foreigners might think (in Taiwan especially from my past memories - since I have not had very many experiences of the same social setting in Gz ) that the participants are arguing or debating or even upset with each other due to the loud animated interjections made with each other. There are even Tri-lingual interchanges even! I noticed that many Wives would complain or push their husbands to make the kids "sit at" and "behave well" during these meal times. These were extremely difficult challenges for these men to do due to the social phenomena of "spoiling" these kids --- especially from the female arena -- mothers, aunts, sisters and especially grandparents. I cannot really tell people what these conversational topics were while visiting so many different families and especially those I was more often acquainted with due to my poor language skills in Chinese, Taiwanese and Hakka. However, it did not take a sociologist to understand some common areas. At the risk of incurring ire from the Chinese female members here I will venture into the quagmire of quicksand. There is most likely a wide diversity of marriage styles and I have not encountered enough to make any generalizations. However, in order to attempt this I might suggest that Chinese style (Taiwan and probably on the Mainland as well ) marriage could resemble an Office type social environment at times . Thus being concerned more with pragmatic and practical details rather than say a getting together and discussing many other topics such as news, psychology, feeling oriented topics, personality, vacation ideas , dreams, educational teaching ideas, history, AI, whatever ... Comparison -- my coworkers got together each weekend and had Beer BBQ with the usual banal jokes about anything (including their wives) drinking, yakking, eating, drinking and more dialogues about whatever came out of their so called drunken excuse for talking ... Chinese got together after hours of food preparation and cooking -- then gathered around the round table and the Wives might spend an inordinate amount of time squawking about their daily lives, their husband's lack of whatever virtues he did not have, what he did and did not do, their kids social behavior, school behavior, advice given on how to change these husbands to fit their ideas of what a "proper" husband should be . how much money the food cost , telling each other how much money was wasted, this came from their ability to haggle over each 500g of whatever food was bought. Then there were endless comparisons made ... squawking at the kids while they were too busy punching the remote TV controller and various anathemas pronounced should these kids fail to finish eating the food in their bowls ( i guess there are not starving kids in america to use ) husband and wife have a great time in this "social experience" too. it seemed to be similar to manager and office staff getting together to talk about which tasks were performed or not . the reasons ( this is where the quicksand deepens very quickly -- i quickly learned early on to greatly reduce any lengthy conversation along this route -- otherwise "me genoito!" (english transliteration of koine greek) give one reason - receive ten in return .. other foreigners decided to have endless bickering matches (hahahaha - coworker used a calendar to notch it each time his Taiwanese wife told him -- I am never wrong!" :D:D
I will easily guess that western marriages have similar phenomena -- have not been down that road though... (giggle) How to keep the kids "at" the dinner table and listen to any or all of this was beyond me ... I tried many times to have a more western style of conversational interchange or at least a style of how I ate with my other Chinese friends who came from all different levels of social status. Uh . the balloon never got enough oxygen to rise and float in the air. There is nothing wrong with this typical cultural social environment . I preferred to spend my dining time with my Chinese friends rather than the typical expat western style BBQ . however, I really did not have too much trouble with the food being served ... except for Hakka style or spicy ... and I mostly refused to eat "breakfast" congee... noodles.. watery rice... no thanks .. so I was able to choose an alternative way ... eat baozi and mantou with soybean milk ... (giggle)
I really do not think it should be one side or the other especially with an international mixed marriage -- Chinese will insist on their cultural style while Westerners do the same .. should these two actually wish to get married then there should or must be more than enough compromises -- otherwise each side is basically attempting to shove, push, or force the other side to adhere to a certain social cultural habit -- meaning I will get married to you and then change you to fit my idea of how daily living should be . there are already too many difficult challenges within typical marriage without bringing control freaks into it ... regardless of their motivation . and Compromise does not mean ... we have a different view or opinion so You will change and I will accept your change -- this is not compromise -- sorry for the length ...

#2016-05-24 20:17:09 by melcyan @melcyan

This blog and the comments are very interesting to read. My partner and I are nearly 100% compatible with food. When others ask us what makes our relationship so strong neither of us have ever mentioned food. Looking back I can now see that our food compatibility has definitely played an important part in the development of our relationship.

It is also interesting to read the negative comment about Western Chinese food. In 1980 I tried Chinese food in at least 20 different western countries (it was cheap!). What was interesting was that the taste was different for each western country and reflected local taste.(Poland was the most extreme. The Chinese food tasted incredibly Polish!)

I ate at a Chinese restaurant in Australia two nights ago. The food was great and nearly every person in the restaurant was Chinese. The improvement in the quality and authenticity of Western Chinese food that I have witnessed over the last 4 decades has been amazing. Close to authentic Chinese food can be found in any Australian city if you make an effort to look for it.

#2016-05-26 07:18:40 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@JohnAbbot: You are right in that I am fortunate Yong has somewhat of a taste for Western cooking so we have been able to accommodate each other. I recall one woman I met online and corresponded with and who was living in America told me early on that she would eat nothing but Chinese food. That relationship was probably doomed for other reasons, but this certainly did not help things along.
@Barry1: As a fellow Sichuan province we share the same misery. My body never adopted. Yong truly cannot believe I lived there for five years.Neither can I.
@paulfox1: I agree that living in China is an excellent opportunity to include more vegetables in your diet. But when you say you “seldom eat meat unless I cook it myself” is this because of your uncertainty of what exactly it is you might be eating exactly, or for some other reason?
@Anniehow: I suspect your lack of craving for Western food is typical of Asian attitudes towards Western cuisine. I have heard many Americans say the really long for Chinese food, but never a Chinese say he or she longed for some Western fair

#2016-05-26 18:26:02 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

@woaizhongguo

The answer to your question is simple. I don't like fat !
When I buy meat, I buy the leanest meat possible. When 'meat' is served in many Chinese restaurants it's often 90% fat. Yuk !

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