…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
When people find out that I *live* in China, they always want to know what it’s like. And from the way they ask and the expressions on their faces, I know they want to hear some crazy ass stories about me eating deer penises, or a chain-smoking eight-year-old beating me in a game of Pai Gow.
Most people who are interested in other cultures will want to learn about things that are totally different from their own realities. The disconnect between the two cultures is what makes foreign countries interesting to us. But trying to put those differences into the context of something we can wrap our non-foreign minds around is another reality altogether. And oftentimes, you don’t even have to leave home to experience your own cross-cultural conundrums.
The Most Culturally-confused Birthday Cake
Somewhere in Seattle, Washington, USA, there’s a Baskin Robbins staffed by a Vietnamese man who speaks very little English…aside from the 1000+ flavors of ice cream, sorbet, and yogurt that the store is famous for. I’m sure this man’s English vocabulary also extends to ice-cream-related things, like triple scoop, whipped cream, waffle cone, parfait, chocolate syrup and maybe even diabetes and obesity. But should you starting talking about your Aunt Gladys’ deep-vein thrombosis, this man will look at you with the blank expression of someone who isn’t being paid enough to listen to your drivel, let alone understand it.
I’d volunteered to get the birthday cake for a friend’s party, and his girlfriend had specifically mentioned that Jim adores peanut butter and chocolate – and the only place I knew that had this flavor was Baskin Robbins.
On the Baskin Robbins website, there’s an easy-to-use template for custom cake design. You first choose the cake shape and size, then the basic cake flavor of white or chocolate, then the ice cream flavor. This same template, along with a book full of custom cake designs, are also available in the store —
Two days before the birthday party, I tried ordering a cake from the Vietnamese man at the Baskin Robbins in Seattle, WA, USA, but soon found that the man only spoke ice cream and did not speak cake.
“No, no. You cannot order this cake,” he said, when I pointed to the round 6″ cake that serves up to 8.
“B-but…I don’t understand, you have it in the book…it’s right here!”
“No, no. We cannot do the round, you pick this one,” he pointed at the rectangular cakes.
“Well…why do you have round cake here, if you cannot order it?”
“The round cake no good…no good. We don’t have. You order this one,” he again pointed at the rectangular cakes.
Realizing it would be impossible to argue someone who didn’t understand half of what I said and couldn’t give me what I wanted, I relented. “OK, fine! I’ll order the rectangular one!”
“What rectangluglar? We no have rectangluglar, you mean the long square cake?” the man again pointed at the rectangular cakes.
Having lived in Taiwan and China for many years, I’ve learned that speaking English to a beginner ESL person is a depressing, no-win situation. Both sides approach the conversation with the best of intentions and are eager to communicate their ideas, but both inevitably walk away feeling that their thoughts weren’t properly conveyed, and that the conversation wasn’t as satisfying as they’d hoped.
Part of the problem is that the English speaker must know about 10 synonyms for every word he or she utters, and these words must be as monosyllabic as possible, regardless of what the original words were – because not every ESL speaker may understand the statement, My sister was resplendent in her gold lame Vera Wang wedding gown and diamond tiara on her special day, but most ESL speakers will know what it means when My-sister-wear-very-long-pretty-bright-sunshine-dress-from-good-Chinese-maker-with-round-circle-and-glass-rocks-on-head-for-marry-day-to-husband-baby-maybe-later…even though this is a cheap, watered-down version of the original, which doesn’t convey the same meaning at all.
So, it was with this same sense of resignation that I finally caved in and said, “All right. Fine. OK…I take long, square cake.”
Two days later when I went back to pick up the cake I found two things:
1. The cake had become a pie.
2. The cake had gone from a long square to a slightly lopsided round shape.
Well, three things:
3. Jim’s name on the pie-cake was misspelled, and the writing was in green.
Actually, the slightly lopsided round shape was fixable and the cake morphing into a pie wasn’t that big of a deal, as the pies have only ice cream and fudge, while the cakes contain cake mix and ice cream: the pie was a better choice, flavor-wise. However, the color of the letters and the misspelled name were not acceptable, even though I hadn’t given instructions as to the color of the writing in advance.
“What happened to the cake? It was supposed to be long square, but now it is round and a pie and the name is wrong and ugly green! It’s all wrong!”
The Vietnamese man and the Vietnamese cake-maker, Emily, grasped onto the only words they could understand, “You mean his name is not Jam?”
“No, no, no! It’s Jim! J-I-M…JIM!”
Emily proceeded to take out the ‘a‘ with a spatula, “Don’t worry. It is very easy to fix name of Jam to Jim.”
“But why is it green?”
“Maybe he is Irish?” the Vietnamese man offered.
“I never said he is Irish!” In fact, Jim is very unIrish; his last name rhymes with ‘Wojciechowicz’. I was also taken aback that the Vietnamese man knew the word Irish, and that it’s associated with the color green, when we’d never even gotten past basic cake shapes.
After fifteen minutes of going through the full color spectrum, I finally decided on a grass green color for the words, instead of the neon green on the cake. As the Vietnamese man and Emily made a fuss over the pie-cake, fixing the shape and the writing, talking amongst themselves in Vietnamese – I wondered what stories about America they would tell friends and family back in Vietnam. And, when pressed to show off their English, whether they’d rattle off a few dozen Baskin Robbins ice cream flavors (Baseball Nut, Creole cheesecake, Rock ‘n Swirl Sherbet), then talk about the time when they’d made a pie resplendent with neon green writing, brown frosting, a white decorative trim (very pretty pie with Irish green words, brown pie top, white around cake) for a psychotic Chinese customer, whose friend belonged on a piece of toast (for the Jam friend of crazy cake lady. She not Vietnamese…no, no, no…maybe look Chinese…yes, they are the crazy people, the Chinese. Yeah, China).
The Power of Poo
My good friend Steve is one of the most intelligent and successful people I know: a single dad with two wonderful daughters, a self-employed businessman who travels across the globe as a sales and management consultant, and a resourceful handyman, who has spent years painstakingly upgrading his beautiful home.
One day, Steve related to me a bizarre dream he had the previous night about poo. In his dream, he desperately needed to do number two, but when he finally found a toilet, he could not stop the poo. It overtook the toilet, then the bathroom stall, and eventually the entire washroom. His younger daughter, Maddy, who was outside the bathroom listening to Steve drowning in his own filth, was frantically looking for a bucket of water or a garden hose, so that Steve could wash away the mess and save himself.
As I listened to this story, realizing that Steve and I had reached a dubious turning point in our friendship – one that involves unannounced explosive gas, armpit farts and poo jokes – I remembered that poo is considered to be a good omen in the Chinese culture. In fact, accidentally stepping on or dreaming about poo is supposed to be extremely lucky. The Chinese character for poo – 大便 – is very similar in Japanese Kanji and old Korean Hanja, and poo is usually depicted in the Asian culture as something cute and odorless, like an inedible chocolate swirl cone. As a child, I always heard my parents encouraging each other to buy a lottery ticket, whenever one of them would step on poo or dream about it.
I told Steve about this Chinese superstition, going even so far to say that, since the massiveness of his poo is unprecedented, he should immediately get some lottery tickets, because LUCK – in the form of a cute, chocolate swirl poo cone with two eyes and a mouth – was definitely on his side, all over his clothes and on the bottom of his shoes.
Steve looked at me like I had shit for brains, belched loudly, then said that, while I’d told some wild Chinese-y stories before, this particular Chinese superstition was the biggest wheelbarrow full of crap he’s ever heard. There was no way he was going to spend his hard-earned money getting lottery tickets over feces; there was absolutely no goddamn truth to the superstition.
Several weeks later, after I’d forgotten all about Steve’s dream, a group of us were at his house for dinner and the subject of Chinese superstitions again came up.
“Don’t believe that stuff, it’s all a bunch of bull,” Steve said sullenly.
“How do you know?” I asked, “You didn’t even buy any lottery tickets that last time.”
“Oh, yes I did! I went out and bought lottery tickets, because you said that poo was lucky.”
“You did what?”
“You said my poo was lucky – Chinese luck – lucky poo! So I listened to you! I went out and bought some of those scratch and win tickets and then some lottery tickets.”
“You DID??” The room exploded with hysterical laughter. I could barely stop laughing myself.
“Yeah! And none of my numbers were chosen! None of them, what a load of shit!”
“What numbers did you choose?”
“Well…you know…uh, mainly poo-like numbers…lots of ones, a few sixes, and even a zero…But none of my numbers came up! The winning numbers were all fours, eights and twos!”
“You mean you read your poo…like…like…tea leaves?”
“Hey, YOU are the one who said that poo is lucky, the more poo the better, you said. And that every time I dream about poo, I should buy a lottery ticket, cuz I’m so lucky, I’m on fire! And now you’re all laughing at me. Well, the next time I dream about poo, I AM going to buy another lottery ticket, just to show you all. I’m going to dream about it and step in it, and I’ll win the jackpot. Just you wait and see!”
Steve threw down the plate of appetizers he was passing around, gave me a dirty look, then stomped off to the bathroom. Presumably to pee and not to poo.
As I finish this post, it’s already 3pm on a Sunday afternoon in China, 12am Sunday morning in Seattle. I imagine Steve drifting off to sleep with his bedroom windows open, the quiet fall chill overtaking his room, and his dog, Rocky, at his feet. Maybe there’s an empty wine glass, his reading glasses, or a half-read book next to him on the nightstand.
But while I can only guess at the physical scene before him I know that, while most of us count sheep and think warm, fuzzy thoughts hoping for sweet slumber to take over, Steve is counting the minutes before he can once again come face-to-face with his number-one nemesis in the toilet bowl – that grinning Chinese chocolate swirl, the steaming pile of brown we occasionally step on, while getting out of our cars, or walking on the sidewalks – that ever-elusive, highly-transformative, and all-empowering…poo.