How do you feel about your ayi feeding egg yolks to your7-month-old ? Does she always over salt the stir-fry vegetables and drown them in oil? Did she just promise to give your child ice cream for finishing a meal?
Does imagining such situations lead to a little anxiety and agitation? These scenarios exemplify the wide gap between expats and Chinese domestic helpers in the understanding of food and nutrition practices.
The differences can occur on many levels, from communication to beliefs about the causes of illness and healing. But the thing that concerns me is how cultural beliefs and personal values regarding food and nutrition can often collide, particularly when it comes to a child’s nutrition.
There is no sure-fire way of resolving all conflicts. There are, however, some useful tips that can help you bridge the gap.
Remember that the ‘We’ are also ‘They’
Don’t expect ayi to instinctively know how you like to do things. Be prepared to explain why you like things done a certain way a few times, possibly with a slightly different approach each time. The emphasis should not be on who is right or wrong, but rather on what you are comfortable with. In cases of basic food hygiene, be conservative – better safe than sorry.
Even the most cosmopolitan and open-minded people will have a natural tendency to view their own cultural outlook as the best one. When your cultural pride collides with that of another, a little understandingcan go a long way. If you feel that twinge of irritation when things don’t go your way, check your own expectations and point of view as you consider solutions.
Bridge the cultural gulf
Learning Mandarin is a great start, but understanding local food practicesand attitudes towards the relationship between food and health is another level of cultural understanding. Encountering food beliefs that are different from yours can often be uncomfortable. Sometimes, however,it can lead to new perspectives. I’ve written about the widespread practice in China of giving egg yolks to babies during the early stages of introducing solid foods, which flies in the face of past recommendations to avoid giving eggs for fear of allergic reactions. This practice sounds distinctly odd to people raised in Western traditions, but it turns out it is generally okay.
Keep walking the bridge
Living abroad is an amazing opportunity to explore new cultures. Keep asking questions and encourage your ayi to ask them in return. This helps build your own cultural skills and knowledge, and it can also help build mutual understanding and respect – both of which are important when reaching a compromise. It is easy to surround yourself with the familiar in a strange country, but venturing into the unfamiliar is how we learn. You might find yourself adopting a few cultural food gems yourself.