I have often wondered why Chinese people I know are so rigid about “foreign” food.
Multicultural Canada is rooted in its openness to other cuisines, so I think of my brave taste buds as a national trademark. So there was nothing extraordinary about the fact that I was eager to taste real Chinese food when I first came to China. I’ve savored delicacies from dozens of regions across the country and now assume deliciousness unless proven otherwise.
Wouldn’t the people of a country with so many celebrated culinary contributions be curious about food from elsewhere, their inquisitive taste buds seeking yet more deliciousness?
My mother-in-law – one I have come to learn is quite a typical
Chinese woman of her generation – is quick to wave away any suggestions of consuming “foreign” food with a statement that is as ridiculous as it is dismissive: “Chi bu guan” (I can’t get used to eating it).
“Really?” I ask, sarcastically. “You have tried the foods from every other country in the world and you know without even tasting them that you simply can’t get used to those countless, diverse flavors?”
She steels her eyes at me. All right, that response is obnoxious. But so is her rigidity. There’s a decided resistance to worldliness clinging on in this country that should have fallen with the Ming Dynasty.
Patiently, I advocate the beauty of new experiences, the adventure for your palate, the possibility of discovery – all to no avail. Apparently, this way of thinking is very “western.”
Add to this the fact that my mother-in-law never admits when she’s wrong. She’s so staunch in this regard you’d think it was the equivalent of “matriarchal status” suicide. She declines suggestions loudly, only to one day start doing what you suggested months earlier. Then, she’ll launch a campaign to educate you about why it’s such a great idea.
I usually find this comical – except when I don’t.
It was an interesting moment when I returned home one day to find her enjoying my feta cheese – something I had offered before, only to be waved away.
“What kind of tofu is this?” she asked, chewing happily on the cubes. “Can you fry it?”
“That’s cheese, Ma,” I said. She stopped mid-chew; cheese was originally off-limits for its “foreignness.” She changed the subject.
Now I find all kinds of cheese in her fridge. She even likes blue cheese, which she compares to “stinky tofu.” I’m not a fan, but now she’s after me to eat it. You gotta laugh.
I learned the hard way when I asked what she thought of my food. Of course it was always “too salty” or “too strange.” The matriarch has barred all compliments from the kitchen!
Now when I cook, I leave my “foreign” food openly available and turn away. She will invariably taste test it when I’m not looking. Soon, she’ll eat it openly like it’s the most normal thing in the world. If I play along, she’ll eventually go back for seconds.
I’m proud to say that the list is getting longer. To cheese, we’ve added toast with butter, cinnamon-flavored items, creamed soups, shortbread, carrot cake, baked vegetables, pasta, and pizza!
One day, I overheard her speaking with her sister on the phone authoritatively. She said, “That ‘foreign food’ actually isn’t terrible! It took me awhile to get used to it, but now I eat it all the time!”
Smiling, I refrain from commenting. I don’t need her refusing my cooking in the future just because I made her “lose face” in my fridge.
This article originally appeared on p45 in the January 2015 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here (will send link later) To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Crystal Liu