What we eat and what we drink seem like innocent, every day issues that we would never expect to be a problem in a relationship. Yet, even same-culture couples experience difficulty in this area: one partner likes certain foods while the other likes something else. Likewise, in an intercultural relationship, tastes in food and drink can vastly differ. The food once thought to be exotic and fascinating in the beginning of the relationship soons begins to appear distasteful and the longing for one’s own comfort food creeps in. Not only can tastes differ, but so can many other aspects surrounding meals: where the meal is eaten, who is present, the timing of the meals, the importance of the meals (which meal is the main meal), what constitutes good table manners, and so on.
What is eaten is often the easiest potential problem to spot. It can be obvious that if a couple has differing likes and dislikes, disagreements may occur later down the road. Some people are naturally adventurous and enjoy trying new foods. Others have a difficult time and are psychologically grounded in foods from their childhood and may become allergic or sick to new foods. I can personally testify to that – I’ve always cautiously tried new foods, but trying is one thing, eating it for a main meal numerous times is something completely different!
When studying abroad in Japan, my host family seemed to enjoy eating okonomiyaki quite often for dinner (a pancake type thing with various vegetables and meats in it, topped with either mayonnaise or a brown sauce).
I’d had it before and liked it, but having a large portion drowned in the slimy brown sauce before being served to me and then being expected to eat all of it was a different story. I got sick more than once from trying in vain to force it down (if I didn’t eat it, the host mother would have become angry and I would have been told how rude I was, how my mother didn’t raise me right, and other various insults that I wanted to avoid). However, if I had been given a choice of toppings, I would have discovered that it was quite delicious with mayonnaise!
Our emotional states may dictate the foods we crave; feeling sad, stressed, overwhelmed, or even homesick may cause us to desire specific foods that we believe to be the only thing that can soothe us. When sick, we also desire certain foods that are highly culture specific. We may be causing more distress out of our loving desire to help a sick partner by plopping down a bowl of chicken noodle soup and 7-up in front of them, when what they really desire is something completely different – and they may be too sick to communicate that.
Religious and lifestyle choices dictate specific dietary needs. A Muslim may avoid alcohol, pork, non-halal meat, and certain seafoods. Hindus do not eat beef, Buddhists avoid all meat, vegetarians avoid all meats, and some people prefer to eat only organic food. The first time I proudly made chicken enchiladas (sans chicken) for my Muslim partner (I was not Muslim at the time), I was devastated when, instead of diving in immediately, he poked at it suspiciously and declared that he couldn’t eat it. Unbeknownst to me was that the cream of chicken I had used had very small chicken pieces in it! These seemingly insignificant things that we completely take for granted can have a huge impact when in a relationship with someone from another culture or belief system.
Certain holidays specify certain foods; Christmas traditions vary all over the world, Muslims abstain from food during Ramadhan, and various other holidays have specific customs and food that may seem strange to a newcomer but essential to the rest.
Some cultures prefer to have the big meal of the day in the evening; others at midday. Some prefer to have a large breakfast, while some may eat something small or nothing at all. In some families, people may eat individually, yet in others everyone is expected to eat together. Even the timing of meals differs – some prefer to eat right at noon, while others may eat at 2. Some may eat between 5-7, others from 9-12. With all the individual and cultural variation, there’s no predicting what may happen in an intercultural relationship!
I managed to luck out since my family has always typically eaten late (often between 7-9) when I was growing up, and I continued this trend in college. My partner comes from a culture in which the evening meal occurs very late, even as late as midnight! So, having late meals is something we both peacefully agree on (although sometimes he’ll decide he wants to eat about the time I need to go to bed so I can get up for work the next day…). We also prefer to have the main meal in the evening, yet in some Latin American countries, the main meal is the midday meal. This can be a challenge for a foreign wife who is suddenly expected to make a huge meal in the middle of the day!
Some families like the meal to be a somewhat formal occasion and may use the dining room for all the meals. Others may be content with simply eating in the kitchen, or even on bar stools next to the kitchen counter. Some cultures dictate that all family members must be present for at least the main meal, others are more flexible and make adjustments for busy schedules. This can be a source of conflict between a couple or between one spouse and the other spouse and all the kids. A foreign spouse in the US may expect everyone to be present for the main meal, yet be frustrated and hurt that the kids are too busy with extra curricular activities to eat with the family.
Finally, manners can play a huge role in mealtime conflict. In Japan for example, it is expected for one to slurp their soup, smack their lips, or belch in order to show satisfaction. Whenever I went to restaurants, I was always a little disturbed by all the eating noises around me that I couldn’t help but perceive to be rude and childish.
Utensils are an important part of manners – which fork should be used for which foods, how should the spoon be used, the correct way of holding chopsticks, and even the appropriate way to use one’s hand for eating. Some cultures have strict rules about what food items can be used with the various forks, spoons, and knives, while others are more lax. Eating with chopsticks requires more skill than simply being able to pick up the food; there are manners dictating how you should pass food to another person using the chopsticks or how to serve yourself from the main dish with your chopsticks. And of course, the biggest taboo of all for Japanese: never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leave them sticking out – this is the symbol for death!
I once had a Korean friend come to my house for Thanksgiving. He had never seen this type of food before, and had no idea how to go about eating it. Instead of waiting around to see what we did, he got busy mixing everything together into one large, brownish, unappealing-looking mess that he contentedly ate with a spoon. Mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, turkey, yams, and cranberries all together…. we were amused but left him to eat it on his own!
The first time my partner came with me to eat somewhere with my parents, he was nervously unsure about the whole thing because he wasn’t sure if he could use the utensils correctly, as he was so used to eating with his hands.
He believed that they would use utensils for everything since I do (I hate eating anything with my hands; I hate my hands getting dirty in general). However, his fears were put to ease when he realized that while my siblings and I overused utensils, my parents didn’t, and none of us had any strict opinions on how utensils should be used either (my partner seems to like using a spoon for things that I think should be eaten with a fork – it confuses me to the point where I always ask him what he wants to eat with before every meal to avoid any potential conflict!).
Even the way we handle food has certain norms attached to it. For instance, I prefer to peel the skin off of a potato or cut vegetables and fruits with the knife going away from my hands. My partner cringes every time he sees it and comments that his mother would pass out if she saw me doing that (and then he usually takes it from me and starts doing it himself). The way one eats fruit also should be done in certain ways. Peeling an orange has a certain technique for some (my Korean friends amaze me with how they manage to peel an orange so quickly and neatly – I always have a big mess of peels and juice everywhere by the time I’m done). My partner also cringes at the way I eat dates – I have no idea how he can pop the whole thing in his mouth and spit the pit out within seconds. I’ve tried but end up drooling all over myself and making a mess. Instead, I just hold the date in my hands and squish the pit out – and then eat it. He also pops seeds and nuts into his mouth with the shell and adeptly spits out the shells into the trashcan or into a pile beside him. He is amused as I struggle with my hands to open the shells first – and I’ve given up trying to eat the smaller seeds with him!
Even what we drink can have a cultural difference. Some may like a cool glass of water or tea as they drink; others believe that drinking cool liquid is unhealthy (a former Korean boyfriend would watch in horror as I downed a big glass of cold water after exercising). Even others may not drink anything at all during the meal (found this out when I was in Japan. I was dying of thirst while everyone else was placidly eating). Tea may be sweet or unsweetened (my Japanese friends almost gagged everytime they came to my house and sampled my mom’s southern-style sweet tea). What may be a hot drink for one may not be nearly hot enough for another (try diving into a steaming cup of Arabic coffee – I waited for mine to cool down the first time I tried it, but my tongue was still burned for days!). Every time my partner and I go for coffee, he always has to ask for his to be ‘extra hot’ because the default is not nearly hot enough for him!
Food is such an integral part of our every day lives that it is bound to cause some sort of disagreement – or amusement – when we invite someone from a different culture into our personal, intimate space of daily life. Although novel and entertaining at first, it may soon grow tiring and frustrating if both aren’t willing to have an open, adventurous attitude and are unable to see beyond the everyday issues to the big picture of their love and their reasons for being in a relationship as a whole.
*Some concepts from Intercultural Marriage by Dugan Romano*