Four Ways Food Can Ruin or Enhance Your Cross-Cultural Relationship

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Cross-cultural relationship eating issuesEating habits at home and whilst travelling can have a major impact on satisfaction levels in a cross-cultural relationship. My first long-term relationship with a Chinese guy taught me a lot about our cultural differences – sometimes it was a very steep learning curve, and other times were enlightening and helped to change the way I looked at the world around me. When we moved in together, I started to see each of our eating habits in a whole new light.

Everyday eating

Potentially Ruinous

I was born in Australia and grew up eating “Western” food, which in Australia is really made up of food from almost any other country with a history longer than our own. I soon realised I could not survive eating Chinese food for every meal, every day even though I was living in China. My boyfriend, similarly, could not survive eating only Western food for every meal either – we had to find a compromise. Depending on where you live, you may not get to eat your old familiar foods very often, sometimes even buying the ingredients you need to cook something yourself is impossible or prohibitively expensive. Missing out on all your favourite foods for months on end can have a serious impact on your happiness. Also the act of eating itself is ripe with cultural behaviours – no elbows on the table? How about making noise while you eat or eating with your mouth open? Sharing dishes together or each person being given their own plate of food?

Redeeming Quality

Moving to another country and living with a local is one of the best ways to find all the best dishes you have never eaten before. In China there are so many different regional cuisines that having someone who’s grown up eating them and knows your own likes and dislikes means there’s a good chance he can help you find some new foods you’ll think are delicious! Also, your idea of table manners is about to be revised – you’ll learn to eat like a local.

Comfort foods

Potentially Ruinous

After coming down with food poisoning one day, my boyfriend kindly offered to cook me something. Toast has always been one of my comfort foods, especially since it’s quick and easy to make – but after he tried putting butter on the bread before putting it in the toaster oven, I suddenly realised He Did Not Know How to Make Toast. I later found out that my 34-year-old boyfriend had also never used a can opener. Making toast, using an oven and opening cans were just not things he had ever needed to do before and rightly so, since those skills were irrelevant in Chinese cooking. Regardless of cooking ability – your partner may be unable to make your comfort foods from back home right when you need them the most.

Redeeming Quality

Your partner might just be able to introduce you to your new favourite comfort foods from his own selection. Such as one of my newer favourites – boiled coke (the drink!) with ginger which is said to cure a cold in China. It’s so delicious, I regularly drink it without a sniffle in sight!

Cooking for your Partner

cooking in a cross-cultural relationshipPotentially Ruinous

If you live together, expectations about who is going to cook and what they are going to cook can be onerous. Depending partly on culture and partly on how things worked in their own family, your partner may expect you to regularly cook dishes recognisable to them and make them delicious. And on the other side of things – the food that you enjoy cooking and feel you’re best at may not be well-received by your partner or their family. This can be a tough one. I quickly learned from my husband that any dishes with cheese as the main ingredient were a no-go for him. I’m also yet to cook a meal for his parents since my Chinese cooking skills are poor and they are unfamiliar with Western food. Communicating upfront about expectations will help to avoid a major mismatch in the kitchen.

Redeeming Quality

If you’re a budding chef, this is just another opportunity to increase your skill-set and learn how to make lots of new dishes. And your partner or their parents may be so pleased with your interest that they’ll happily teach you. Also, depending on your partner, they might be keen to be the main chef in the household or share the duty with you. In our house, I’m the one who likes cooking, and my husband doesn’t mind washing the dishes so I cook Western food and he washes up, we sometimes order in Chinese food and eat a range of different stuff when we go out.

Eating on the road

Potentially Ruinous

Eating is hard to do well while travelling. If you or your partner doesn’t have much interest in food, or only wants to eat familiar things, travelling can be a nightmare. I travelled with three Chinese colleagues to the US once and saw firsthand how hard it was for them to figure out what anything was on the menu (since many menus didn’t have pictures on them like they often do in China, and food vocabulary is very particular, even for very good non-native English speakers). I happily spent some time trying to help them find something to eat that they might enjoy, but I think it was kinda painful for them. Also, for anyone who has lived their whole life eating Chinese food, going without some kind of Chinese food for more than a week is probably too much to ask. Will you be taking your partner back to visit your hometown with nary a noodle or grain of rice in sight? Pack a few packs of instant noodles, or something similar to help them out. My husband was so relieved to find Panda Express in a US airport after 2 weeks of only non-Chinese food that he didn’t really care how it tasted!

Redeeming Quality

If this is your partner’s first experience of being away from their local cuisine, this may help them to be a bit more considerate of the challenges you face living in their country. That might bring you a little closer together. Also, with a bit of planning and research before your trip, you might find some delicious delicacies and unforgettable restaurants to share together.

Are you in a cross-cultural relationship? Share what you’ve noticed is similar or different in the eating habits between you and your partner by commenting below.

Susie Hart

Living in Beijing since 2003, Susie Hart is a website developer and web content manager with an eye for detail.

4 comments

  1. Interesting blog! Food definitely has a much larger role in relationships than we realize. “Ruinous” is not an overstatement

    Food definitely had a pretty disastrous role in my marriage – I had food allergies. I don’t recommend that those with food allergies marry non-western men, or try to live the international lifestyle! Vacations are possible if carefully planned. Moving and/or marrying is much more difficult. Fortunately, the food allergies went away and our lives are much less stressful now, but it just about ruined our marriage during the first 3 years!

    1. Ah yes, I’ve noticed too that there seems to be much lower prevalence of food allergies in China, hence less understanding of how serious consuming an allergen can be! And it would be even tougher if you couldn’t speak the local language to try and explain such things! I do wonder why there is such a lack of food allergies here compared with what I’ve seen in Australia – diet, genetics, environmental? Maybe a combination…

      Anyway, glad your food allergies resolved!

  2. My late husband lived in the United States for about three years before I met him, so not only was he familiar with American food, but he already had his favorites and his own quick-to-prepare inventions. One was what he called “Chinese sushi.”(Although he was Chinese, he’d lived in Japan during his high school years.) He stir-fried ground pork, mixed it with catsup and soy sauce, and then placed the pork and some cooked rice on a sheet of nori and rolled it up. Totally unsophisticated but good for a quick dinner. When he made the effort, he could cook up an excellent wine dinner for a party.

    My husband did introduce me to a new comfort food: congee.

    Throughout our marriage, we ate pretty much half Western, half Asian. When we both had time, we liked to cook together, one of us being the chef; the other, the assistant, and then changing off on the next meal.

    1. Haha, the “Chinese sushi” sounds good! I’m a big fan of congee (or “zhou” as they call it in Mandarin) now too!! Definitely a good comfort food in winter.

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