Monday, February 13, 2006

From Turkey to Riceballs

When I first arrived in the US in 1992, the food I had the most difficulty getting used to were cheese and turkey. I overcame the aversion to cheese after some persistent trips to the neighborhood McDonald’s. Back in China, I had never had the luxury of visiting the McD; the few outlets pioneering in China then were grouped in with Michael Jackson and Coca Cola as symbols of America, the top of the Chinese hierarchy of Western civilizations.

I got used to cheese from the cheese burgers which seemed always on sale for a dollar each, a huge bargain for a piece of the American dream. I would go at least every other day, until I got so sick of it and switched to Burger King. Alas, those were the innocent days before Supersize Me came to the big screen.

The turkey, however, took a lot longer to sink in. The first Thanksgiving I had in the US, the hosts, who were fellow Chinese graduate students in the medical school, made sure we had roasted chicken from the local Chinese restaurant besides the huge turkey. Over the meal, we groaned over turkey and reminisced about the tender chicken and duck back home. What were the Americans thinking to stuff in their mouth such dry meat as turkey?

But my Chinese friends and I kept on having Thanksgiving dinners. Except for one year when we gave up and only had Chinese chicken, we ordered turkey every year at the local supermarkets like the happy Americans we saw in TV commercials. In the late 90s, I started having Thanksgiving dinners with my American friends. They helped me discover all sorts of fancy cranberry sauces, which made turkey bearable.

So last night, invited to a dinner at an expat-friend’s penthouse apartment, I decided to bring rice balls. It was the night before the Lantern Festival, the end of the lunar new year celebration and the day to eat rice balls. I wanted to introduce the tradition to the expats at the party.

I cooked the rice balls in boiling water (no I didn’t make them despite my prior proclamation of missing the old days making rice balls with my dad; I bought them plastic wrapped) and put three (the number symbolizing plenty) in each bowl.

All the expats who had studied many years in China and knew how to speak Chinese finished the rice balls. Among the three who didn’t speak Chinese, only one took a small bite.

On our way home, my boyfriend asked me why I was quiet. I told him that I was thinking – why had I looked down on my Chinese friends who didn’t bother to try to like cheese and turkey in America as culturally unadventurous? Why did I laugh at my mother because she insisted on us bringing camping stove so she could have instant noodle with Sichuan hot sauce in Las Vegas? (Ok, she was a little extreme for she disliked any restaurant that was not genuinely Sichuanese.) Our expat friends had just ignored our Chinese tradition in China without even a bat of their eyelids.

My Chinese friends and I had tried hard to learn the American way in America. In a village follow the local customs (入乡随俗). The anti-immigrant population in the US and Europe seemed to be demanding the same. But many of the expats I know in Beijing, especially the new batch coming here for the “opportunities”, are not doing that. They dined in Italian or Persian restaurant, danced in dive bars with only pretty Chinese girls in sight, and read books written by fellow expats about their kindred insight on China.

Instead of brushing aside my reminiscence as bourgeois nonsense, my boyfriend nodded his head, like a good Taiwanese. “Indeed,” he said, “those expats come here and want to make a buck. But they don’t know or even care for local customs. I doubt if they’d go far.”

The cab drove by an upscale apartment complex in front of which fireworks were exploding. Indeed, I nodded my head in reply – capitalism speaks much louder than cultural nuisances. If the US wasn’t the land of Bill-Gates-style billionaire dreams, you think many of my Chinese friends would pretend to enjoy cheese and turkey?

Likewise, without a taste for rice balls, even if affected, how could one capture a slice of the saliva-inducing economic miracle of China?


nacino said...

"In a village follow the local customs (入乡随俗)."

Did you mean 'When in Rome do as the Romans do' ?

Baomin said...

I agree assimilation and adaptation to the surrounding new environment is beneficial in most cases. That's where the whole theory of evolution stands. Sometimes, it is not a bad idea to keep the identity of yourself, even though the part you keep may seems foolish or unadventurous to others. The ones eating the rice balls are not neccesarily caring more about locals and more geared up to success.

Other Lisa said...

I've seen this on both sides. Americans who travel across the country (or the world, for that matter) and only eat in chain restaurants. Chinese students who take a field trip to San Diego (my hometown) and insist on finding a bad Chinese restaurant, rather than trying anything different.

Not my philosophy, and not one that I understand.

Hey, Loafer, why the name change?

graham said...

I have had a lot of chinese friends over here in canada. most of them are grad students at the local university. for the most part they show only minimal interest in the "local customs" of turkey dinner and halloweeen. Not very interesting customs really. can't blame them. but they have little or no realization that custom goes beyond these "hallmark moments. they have a vague and very limited curiosity about this cartoon-like images of western culture but litle interest in getting farther inside our way of life, understanfing our thinking our accepting our ways of doing things. I have had friends stubbornly and repeatedly insist that the chinese way is always better, they are chinese and will only do chinese things.they complain that they feel isolated from canadian life but don'yt seem to realize who it is that is always putting up the bariers.
they are really nice people but so hard to get to know as real friends. " We chinese are different" hmmm
I'm a bit suprised that the expats in china are also so isolated. I shouldn't be, i suppose. i've seen expat communities before while living abroad. Generally, i avoid them.Things never change.
On a MUCH more interesting are originally from Szechuan??!! Your mom insists in eating only in genuine szechuan restaurants???!!! are there ANY over here? We often go to Las Vegas, Vancover or California. I have yet to find a Szechuan place that is not just a cantonese restaurant in disguise. If your mom has any recomendations can she please tell me. PPLEASE!

Beijing Loafer said...

Crossing the cultural barrier and understanding the other side are easy said than done, for both the East and the West. Thank god there's globalization forcing people to learn to understand, or at least to live with, each other.

Didn't find any genuine Sichuan restaurant in Vegas, which was why my mom was having motel-cooked ramen noodles. There are a couple good ones in the San Francisco Bay Area, not in the city, but in the Silicon Valley where many mainland Chinese live. Only been to Vancouver once so can't comment.

Can't you google it? :)

hcpen 彭皓全 said...

I totally agree with you on how when we go to another country we should try to adapt and be interested in the host country's culture. Your post reminds me of the stories i hear of HK expats who go to Hong Kong to make money but are so isolated, mixing only amongst themselves and not bothering to learn about their host place's culture. I am also glad to hear that ur boyfriend is Taiwanese, no wonder u wrote in one post how the Taiwanese were more traditional as compared to mainlanders, something which i think is true but often not recognised by many ppl who do not know the separate history which has caused this difference. Thus, when people talk about Qi Paos (Chinese dresses)being the best in Shanghai, i always disagree and say the best Qi Pao tailors are in Hong Kong/Taiwan and not Shanghai.