The Cross-Cultural Power of Food: Tradition Can Be Your Guide

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Seth Werner, a senior lecturer in Marketing, often teaches abroad for the Carlson Global Institute. Last fall, he hosted a dinner at his house for four exchange students. One student guest was Jingyi Su, then a junior at Tsinghua University in Beijing. An economics and finance major, she took advantage of the exchange program between her university and the Carlson School because she had visited the U.S. in high school and wanted another taste, so to speak.

The major difference she noticed between the culinary cultures in China and the U.S., besides chopsticks versus knife and fork, was the serving attitude. In China, people say “try this” and put food on your plate for you. “This is usually done for children; parents use this as a way to show their love for the children,” Su says. “I don’t like being treated in that way because I’m not a kid anymore.” In American culture, people are recommended certain dishes, but they help themselves, she adds.

Su also noticed that sweet food is popular in the U.S., but in China, salty is more preferred. “People in China may consider eating sweet food too easy to get fat. Sometimes it’s just too sweet for us,” she says. As for the Chinese preference for a salty flavor, she isn’t exactly sure of the reason, but thinks it may be because their ancestors cooked that way. “People nowadays just follow their traditions,” she says.

“Of course different cultures have different food, but I think this has more to do with the tradition than the culture reflected,” Su says.

Following up on the sweet motif, Su also pointed to home-made desserts as a difference between the cultures. “When people go out for dinner, there is usually dessert in China, but not in cooking at home,” she says, offering a couple of ideas why. “In China, people consider dessert as something you eat for some special meaning or to celebrate something. It is also very hard to cook Chinese dessert at home, so we usually buy it.”

Su said she liked how U.S. culture is open in how foods for one dinner could reflect different tastes and cultures, pointing out that Werner cooked many Chinese dishes for the students. However, having the host cook the meal is something seldom done in China. “They usually talk with the guests while their wife is cooking,” Su says. “They sometimes help, but usually they are not involved in the cooking part.”

In summing up how she learned about American culture through its food, Su thinks tradition as well as lifestyles play a heavy part. “Of course different cultures have different food, but I think this has more to do with the tradition than the culture reflected,” she says. “You eat something this way because when you are young, your parents teach you to eat in this way and your own tastes and preferences are built. For example, in the U.S., people prefer fast food. I think maybe it’s because they are too busy. This reflects their lifestyle.” 

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