Kitchen Culture

A question I’m constantly being asked is whether or not I’m used to the food in China yet. And the answer is complicated. If someone just plopped some food down in front of me, I would eat it and I would be very pleased. However, finding food is a lot more complex. I need to learn to cook Chinese food. I need to buy a pan, for starters. I need to find where they hide the eggs and the multivitamins. I need to move to an apartment with a real kitchen.

But even in restaurants I’m often confused because Chinese is hard to sound out, you know? And there are no pictures. I know the character for ‘meat’ but I can’t tell pork from chicken and when it comes to vegetables I might as well close my eyes and point. I’d have better luck. So am I used to the food? Yes and no. It tastes great when I can find it.

However. Something I am not used to, and do not intend to become used to in the near future– the whole bones in everything concept. Wigs me out. You know how in the US if you order a fish dish, you get this real nice and friendly looking fillet of meat? And it’s de-boned, and it’s de-scaled, and it definitely doesn’t still have it’s intestines? I miss that.

You know when you get chicken and it’s cut up in little bite sized pieces and you can just like, pop em in your mouth without fear? I miss that!

In China, if you order a fish, you get the whole freaking fish. Eyeballs and fins included. And it will stare at you as you ponder whether you can adequately navigate its anatomy in such a way that you are absolutely sure you won’t accidentally eat its bowel system. Blech. It still has brains. My coworkers LOVE fish brains and eyes (fish eyes are good for people eyes, apparently. I’ll just take their word for it). As someone who only very recently began to enjoy seafood in general, having a staring contest with my dinner and wondering in the back of my mind if it might still be breathing is a little much for me. I mean, have you seen prawn eyes? They’re massive!

And bite sized chicken chunks still have all their bones in them, so if you’re not careful you could choke. It’s perfectly acceptable here to spit things out. Bones, watermelon seeds, something you just don’t really like- spit it out! It’s not rude, it’s expected. As is slurping food- that just means you really like it! I’m used to the table manners here, but I haven’t been able to partake in them. Mom, you succeeded- I can’t slurp my food even when people want me to.

As a result, a lot of my coworkers make comments on my eating habits. “You’re such a lady! So civilized! You eat your noodles so quietly!” They tried to teach me how to slurp and I tried to learn but I just couldn’t seem to do it. So for now, I’m Jessica, the preternaturally quiet eater of noodles.

However, the noticeable difference in table manners has sparked some discussion. Cathy noticed my hesitation about the fish we were served the other day, since most of the meals we get I have no problem tucking into. She asked if we didn’t eat that kind of fish in America, and explained that I had to be careful about the tiny bones or I could choke on one and have to go to the hospital because they are so sharp.

I was explaining how, while we do eat fish in the US, the bones and the scales and the fins are already removed, when I had a maybe kind of interesting realization. Maybe.

I think the way that we prepare our food is very representative of larger cultural themes. In China, the cook will make the food and you are responsible for eating around the bones, it’s your job to shell it/skin it/ remove the head, and it’s your job to make sure you only eat the parts you should be eating.

In the US, it’s the cook’s job to debone/skin/shell/gut etc. They take out the eyeballs, the stomachs, they remove the scales and the creepy crawly legs and you get a meal that for the most part you can bite into without care.

And maybe I’m seeing a connection where there isn’t one, but I do think that reflects on larger cultural differences between the US and China.

In China, you are expected to look out for yourself. You take care of yourself. If you choke on a bone, that’s your fault. Beyond that, I find that I’m often expected to know things that no one has ever told me in the first place. I need to ask a million and one questions to make sure I’m getting all the information I need, and if I don’t have said information, it’s not someone else’s fault for not telling me, it’s mine for not asking. There is a larger sense of being on your own here. No one is going to hold your hand- not your cook, not your boss, not anyone. You need to eat around the bones on your own.

In the US, there’s a much larger tendency to try and pass culpability to someone else. Nothing is ever really our fault. If we miss something, it’s because we weren’t told, we weren’t warned! We’re not expected to be quite as self-sufficient as people are in China. It’s the chef’s job to make the food safe, not ours.

I think both ways have their pros and cons. It’s nice to know that in the US if something bad happens to you or you are treated unfairly, you can do something about it. The people responsible will get in trouble, everything will fine. In China, if you get conned then you should have been more careful.

And while it is true, sometimes it seems that I’m expected to be self-sufficient almost to the point of developing psychic powers, it’s also nice to know that I have gotten this far on my own. I am a real human person who gets things done and makes decisions and signs contracts and eats around the bones. That’s cool.

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