A tale of cultural differences, eating habits and sandboxes.
Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions in China it’s been almost three years since I’ve met my Chinese parents-in-law. I miss them dearly and this seems like a good moment to revisit an originally Dutch article I wrote in 2016 after their first visit to The Netherlands.
Over the years I have regularly written about the cultural differences that we have to deal with when we live in or visit China. But at least as interesting is the question how the Chinese experience out countries, in my case The Netherlands, when they come here. In the summer of 2016 my parents-in-law came to visit us. We had visited them several times in Datong in Shanxi Province, but this was their first visit here. In fact, it was the first time they had ventured outside of China.
My in-laws are simple people, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. They are not among the outliers in Chinese society. Born in the 1950s, they are part of the generation that experienced the Great Famine, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as children under Mao. Under Deng Xiaoping, they have seen China transform into what it is today. When my wife went to primary school, they moved to the city, but they are certainly not middle class let alone the first generation of rich you sometimes read about. They are what the Chinese call lao bai xing, literally ‘the old hundred names’, a term for common folks.
We were very curious about the way my parents-in-law had experienced The Netherlands and I regularly asked them about things that stood out to them.
Despite coming from a city in northern China where the mercury dips well below minus 10 degrees Celsius in winter, my mother-in-law, in particular, seemed very sensitive to the cold. After a snack in the harbour of the Frisian Island of Terschelling, having a breath of fresh air was clearly an error of judgment on my part. She quickly escaped to the departure hall of the ferry to warm up. On the deck of a tour boat in the harbour of Rotterdam during a sunset trip, she pulled the strings of her hood so tight that I thought for a moment that a Chinese Teletubby had come on board.
As soon as I put on a nice pair of shorts when the temperature was over 20 degrees, my father-in-law would unexpectedly grab one of my calves, scaring me half to death, and asked me worriedly if I wasn’t cold. When the mercury rose to 35 degrees Celsius in the summer, catching a lot of sun, our corner house was getting very uncomfortably hot. Sleeping was getting difficult so I decided to cool down by spend a night in a tent in the garden, they couldn’t believe what that weird Dutchman was doing.
My in-laws soon noticed how quickly the weather in the Netherlands could change. In the month they stayed in The Netherlands, they experienced daytime temperatures ranging from 15 to 35 degrees, something unimaginable in their hometown. A few days after they arrived, I showed them how we use weather report apps we use to plan our weekly and daily activities. There was still some scepticism. Weather never changed that quickly back home. But when, after a short walk to the nearest supermarket on the way, they were attacked by a rain shower, they were convinced. The next time they wanted to go for a walk again, my mother-in-law came and asked me to check that handy app for her.
One of the things my parents-in-law noticed in The Netherlands is that strangers greet each other on the street and people who don’t know each other seem to be much more cordial than in China. I think this might say more about China than it does about The Netherlands. It is often said that the Chinese are very warm, hospitable people. That will be true for tourists who visit China and for people in the Chinese’s own guanxi network. I myself have however always been surprised at the apathy, mutual distrust and animosity between Chinese who do not know each other.
The question we were asked on the way home from Schiphol airport also said a lot about the way Chinese experience their own country. They looked at the cows in the meadows along the A2 highway and asked us in surprise: ‘They’re just running around on the loose?! Won’t they be stolen?!’. The fact that we can scan our groceries in the supermarket ourselves and that the purchases were not all checked at the checkout also caused disbelief. That the random check system prevents people from being tricked into shoplifting was no cause for reassurance; in China, these stores would be out of business in no time. Ironically, this system of self-check-out has in recent years also been implemented in several Chinese convenience stores and supermarkets.
My in-laws had noticed that the sky was more blue and smelled nice and fresh, that the environment was greener, but also that the Dutch live much more in balance with nature. That animals were treated with more respect. They had seen it in a local petting zoo, a nature museum, but also everywhere in everyday life. My father-in-law was amazed how duck would walk up to him in the local park. It must have brought back memories from the days during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent down to Xinjiang to feed ducks as a punishment for working for somebody that was affiliated to the disgraced marshal Lin Biao.
They were fascinated by the fact that children could still be children here. When my wife told her that her students had to hand in their books during the summer holidays, her parents were very surprised. How would they be able to study during the holidays? They were also surprised that children learned to ride a bicycle at an early age and whizzed across the street with their parents among all the other traffic. And where were the police officers directing traffic at intersections? They were baffled seeing schoolchildren with painted faces one day. The fact that kids can decide for themselves what you wanted to be that day and didn’t have to fit into a fixed pattern is an almost unprecedented phenomenon for them.
Indeed, you could do more of what you wanted here without anyone watching or having an outspoken opinion about it. The fear of the Cultural Revolution and the need to keep your head down and not stand out is still present in this generation. It was touching to see how my father-in-law dealt with this after a few weeks and started to let his guard down. After a visit to an exhibition with sand sculptures, we found him at the sandbox where he was making a lion with sand molds. My father-in-law’s inner child had resurfaced.
Bu tai nan chi
I’ve lived and dined with Chinese people long enough to be prepared for smacking noises around me. I was therefore no longer shocked by the decibels that my father-in-law produced while eating his noodles in the morning and how that scared the cat. I had a harder time getting used to my mother-in-law just unashamedly belching every time she sat opposite me. In the month they stayed with us in The Netherlands, we spent five days with my parents in a six-person apartment on the island of Terschelling. It was admirable how, under the inspiring guidance of their daughter, they had adjusted and could eat almost silently by then. Scaring the cat was not that bad, shocking my parents a whole different thing.
Although my father-in-law seemed to put his teeth into everything that was presented to him without many complaints, my mother-in-law turned out to have more trouble with the food. The two biggest problems: too cold and too sweet. Bravely she tried the simple Dutch breakfast. When I saw her nibbling on a dry piece of crispbread, I told her to put something on it. When I looked up again from my own cheese sandwich, she was struggling with the same slice of crispbread topped with just a thin layer of butter.
A few days later she had a jam sandwich. That turned out to be much too sweet, like most Dutch sandwich spreads. Don’t worry, she just topped it off with some mustard sauce over the jam to neutralize the taste. I once asked her what she thought of the Dutch breakfast, the hilarious answer was: ‘Bu tai nan chi’ (不太难吃); literally ‘not very unappetizing’. I knew she was trying to avoid making me lose face by not being too harsh. In the weeks that followed, I kept looking for alternatives for her, because her face spoke volumes.
The food in the northern provinces of China where my in-laws come from is in some ways a bit like that of The Netherlands. A lot of cooking is done with potatoes while flour is an important part of the cuisine. But where we use it to make bread, my in-laws use it to make jiaozi (dumplings), noodles and bing (a kind of thin pancakes). Given the complaints about the crispbread, it was remarkable how they were gobbling away on dry, sliced bing while it gave me spontaneous constipation. I would later learn that Chinese mostly bake with low-gluten flour and not the high-gluten flour we use for baking bread.
Okay, so floury products were appreciated. But they had to be warm. Crispbread and bread were clearly a no-go, but pancakes and poffertjes (Dutch mini pancakes) were positively received. The croissants at breakfast in the weekend also went down well. Once they discovered something they liked, it usually got a prominent place in their daily diet during their stay. For example, during lunch I sometimes found a half-eaten pack of rondo cookies (not too sweet) and I found out that my white bread started disappearing once they had learned to make toasted sandwiches (warm lunch!).
Finally, after a few days, an interesting spectacle unfolded. While I was eating my Dutch breakfast, the two sat gulping down morning noodles across from me. It was offered to me, but even though I learned to enjoy a hot lunch in China, a bowl of noodles on an empty stomach is just a bit too much for me. But for our Chinese guests the food had to be warm. My mother-in-law would look in horror at those strange Dutchmen who were enjoying an ice cream in the windy weather on the canal boat.
Even in the abnormally hot month of July 2016, cold drinks were not an option for my in-laws. But hot water, the true national drink in China, was not offered in restaurants so they tried something different every now and then. After a brave attempt by my mother-in-law to try a “coffee latte” even that proved too strong. And that fresh mint tea started getting boring. But in the end, there was a sudden success that was worth repeating … excessive repetition actually … Hot chocolate with whipped cream! And so it happened that, while I was sitting on a terrace at 30 degrees Celsius sipping a cold beer, my parents-in-law were sitting opposite me enjoying a delicious hot cup of coco.
It is a kind of glee for Chinese people to see foreigners eating with chopsticks for the first time. Secretly they laugh at our bumbling. And as if it were some kind of higher mathematics, they are sometimes stunned when they come across a foreigner that can use chopsticks effortlessly. It therefore felt like a kind of sweet revenge to see how some Chinese are less adept at using Western cutlery. The fiddling reminded me of a toddler who is allowed to cut his own food for the first time. And the result of my mother-in-law’s attempt to cut slices from a block of cheese could easily be exhibited in a museum of contemporary art.
An important difference between the Western and the Chinese way of eating is that in China you rarely order a meal for yourself in a restaurant, unless it is a bowl of noodles, which you basically don’t share. In China, several different dishes are usually ordered and supplemented with individual bowls of rice. Those dishes are placed in the middle of a round table and are then shared, which is often facilitated by a large round turntable, in the west sometimes called a ‘lazy susan’. You can imagine that unfamiliarity with the western way of eating out and having to order just one dish from the menu can often lead to disappointments for the Chinese when they pick the wrong option.
By chance, however, we found a way of eating that my in-laws seemed to particularly like: wapas (“world tapas”). This concept, which had become really popular at the time, involves ordering a large number of small portions of native and foreign dishes. It’s like Spanish tapas but with a wider range of cooking styles. It turned out to be a huge success with my in-laws. If there was something they didn’t like, we ate it. And seeing so many different dishes on the table almost felt like home…
After such a night of eating out, my in-laws were surprised at the price we have to pay in The Netherlands to go out for dinner. In China there is not that much difference between the cost of cooking yourself and eating out. That is different in the Netherlands. They quickly understood that eating out is really something for special occasions and not something you do several times a week. Which, given my mother-in-law’s unpredictable belching, was maybe for the better.
When they returned to China, I teasingly asked my mother-in-law if she would miss anything from the food in The Netherlands. Was there anything she didn’t consider bu tai nan chi? It turned out she had found a favourite: the delicious Dutch yogurt, which was much better than in China. And the hot chocolate of course!