Hard Like a Peach or Soft Like a Coconut? + Two Easy Chinese Dishes {The Grove: Enculturating}

When we landed in China 8 years and 3 weeks ago, I had no idea…

…we’d be living in a hotel for a month with nasty carpet, no bathtub, and nowhere for the 13-month-old to sleep except the bathroom floor (in a baby tent).

…we’d need to hand-wash our clothes during that first month.

…I wouldn’t know how to cook hardly anything because there were no cans, boxes, or convenience foods anywhere nearby. Breakfast is easy, right? Ever tried making your own syrup? Mine still turns out either watery or so goopy I have to throw away the pan!

…I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone when I stepped out of my apartment. I knew I didn’t know a lick o’ Chinese, and I knew most locals didn’t know much English…but the depth of that reality didn’t hit until we landed and I started living life. Isolating. So, so isolating.

…I’d get so frustrated when people didn’t stand in a line.

…grandmas would come up to my child and pat him down to see how many layers he had on, and pull up my pants leg to check for another layer…when it was 65 degrees and sunny outside.

…why the locals drank hot water.

…that it would take so long to build a trusting friendship deep enough to take it to a spiritual level.

Some moments hit me harder than others. Cooking was one disaster after another, like I’ve told you before. I remember making meatloaf with ground pork one night. Meatloaf isn’t too hard, right? As I pulled it out of my toaster oven, it was literally swimming in grease. Like, half an inch sitting on the top. Gross!

Another time, a friend and I were trying to catch the college-run bus to the city. We got there 30 minutes early, knowing there would be a line of students excited to frolic around Beijing. A quick count of about 40 students made us nervous, because the bus could only hold 50. As we waited, we noticed some students cutting in line with friends. Annoying and irritating, but ok, I’ve done that a time or two as well. As the line started moving to board the bus, though, students came running from nowhere to cut in line (not with friends) and got on. No one said a word or even gave them the stank eye. My eyes were popping out of their sockets, wondering who was going to stand up for such injustice! As my friend and I made our way to the front of the line, we found ourselves up next. The bus driver counted to make sure there were 2 seats left, and there weren’t! I was livid! What had just happened? Our next option was to walk 15 minutes to take a city bus, then spend double the time traveling to our destination. Not. Cool.

Some culture clashes just smack you in the face, right? We must be high on the list for getting the most opportunities to practice “slow to anger” and checking our reactions. Over the 8 years we’ve lived there, I’ve slowly begun to learn a few lessons. I’m learning…

…kids are so adaptable! Germs are good for their immune systems (don’t worry, I still have my limits {any public floors in China}) and really, they can sleep anywhere. My favorites: bathtub, closet, and a shelf in the closet. Everyone slept great!

…washing machines and dryers are a blessing from heaven. I’ve had to hand wash and hang dry many a clothes, and I didn’t die. Our clothes were stretched out to the max, but they were clean. And crunchy.

…cooking takes practice, no matter where you live. I wasn’t great at cooking when we moved to China, and learning to make things from scratch without key ingredients took a lot of trials and even more errors. After researching, watching videos, learning from others who had been there longer, and not being willing to give up (most days) kept me going. That, and I didn’t love Chinese food. I needed options!

…language is incredibly important. I wish I had learned more conversational phrases before we came. Not being able to read any signs or talk with anyone beyond my team and a handful of students made for a lonely few years. Once I studied, I felt like my world opened wide. I could not only talk to the market sellers and grandmas critiquing me, but I could finally begin to cultivate some great friendships with locals in their own language.

…not standing in a line isn’t the end of the world. Sure, sometimes I have to be more aggressive so I’m not forever at the back, but it’s not worth getting upset over. My American justice tendencies have had to take a back seat as I learn why the locals shove each other to get to the front. It stems from an awful time not so long ago when they were starving and it was every man for himself. Becoming a student of the culture is vital to thriving.

…just to dress in the layers they expect. Most of the time. I can’t compete with some of them wearing 5 and 6 layers! I now understand that it’s important to layer up because to get from place to place, I’m spending travel time outside, walking or biking. Depending on the destination, it may not have heat. It’s better to be too warm than too cold. Once again, as I learned why they dress the kids in 3 marshmallow layers; these grannies lived during a dark time when people froze to death. Perspective into weird cultural norms makes for a more compassionate attitude. I may not agree with them immediately—or ever—but I can at least begin to understand the why.

drinking hot water is a life-saver when it’s freezing inside and the government-controlled heat won’t come on for another 3 weeks. When I first tasted plain hot water, I thought it was nasty. Now, it’s all I drink during the winter. Bets on how many weird looks or flat-out refusals I’ll get when I ask for hot water this winter while we’re in the States? I’m guessing at least a few!

good, deep friendships take time. A teammate our first year gave this example: Americans tend to be like peaches. We’re soft and mushy—relateable, friendly—on the outside, but if you want to dive deep into our emotions or hard trials or ask us tough questions, good luck! We’re going to turn hard as a peach seed, uncomfortable with sharing such deep thoughts and experiences. The Chinese, however are like coconuts. Their shells are rock hard. Strangers on the street don’t look at or smile or even help one another. But once trust is built and quality time is spent with them, they’ll open up. Once you crack that shell, they’ll tell you their life story right then and there. Everyone has an inner circle of friends, but I had to learn how to work my way into those circles with those whom I was there to serve, not expect them to be just like me.

When we moved overseas, I was a young mama strapped with loads of self-righteous opinions. Doesn’t everyone think their culture is the best and does things the right way? I’m sure we can all speak to the fact that actually, other countries and cultures do some things much better than our home culture. It’s not only a humbling process, but one I think God rejoices in, knowing all of His tribes and nations are taking baby steps towards the perfect unity we’ll get to experience in heaven.

What cultural norms have you struggled to understand in your host culture? What surprising habits have you adapted to? 

—–

I thought since we’re enculturating this week, I’d share some Chinese dishes. Except these are my versions of common dishes, so I’m only half-enculturating! I’m a measurement girl when it comes to first learning recipes, and most Chinese don’t even know what measuring tools are! Every time I’ve learned these recipes from different people, they add their own touches, so I’m going to teach you my touches and you can adapt however you wish!

I’ll share how to make salty satueed green beans, which is my kids’ all-time favorite veggie, as well as eggs and tomato. It may sound odd, but if over a billion people eat it on the regular, it can’t be that bad.

Since I’m on home assignment in the US right now, I’m struggling to find fresh, cheap produce. Sprouts and Aldi have been my go-to places, but I’m still paying at least double what I would pay in China!

These green beans will transform from a dull green to a bright green in just a few minutes.

Hard to capture, but if you keep an eye on them, you’ll notice the color difference!

After steaming them, I drain the water and return them to the pan for a quick, hot sautee to brown them a bit. Keep scrolling for the finished product.

Little hands constantly stealing food.

I forgot to take a pic of cooking the eggs, so just imagine it! Basically like scrambling them. Next, we’re cooking the tomatoes until their juices release.

This is one of the most common dishes eaten in China. Served over rice or noodles, it’s a complete meal.

My kids miss eating rice several times a week, so I try to make Asian food at least once a week while here in the US. (Pictured in the back, teriyaki salmon. You better believe we’re buying it every time it’s on sale since it’s hard to get in our other home!)

Chinese Sauteed Green Beans

Serves: 4-6

Ready in: 20 minutes

1 lb. fresh green beans

2-3 cloves minced garlic

soy sauce

salt

olive oil

Rinse and snap the ends off the green beans. Snap into smaller pieces. Heat a few splashes of olive oil in a pan on medium high heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add green beans, stirring and cooking until they turn bright green. Add 1/4-1/2 cup of water (I eyeball it! It’s forgiving, don’t worry.)  and cover with a lid. Cook, stirring occasionally, until beans are cooked through, about 10 minutes. I test this with a fork or taking a small bite, making sure they’re not squeaky.

Once cooked, remove  from heat and drain the remaining water. Return pan to the burner, add another few splashes of olive oil (a smidge more than the first time) over medium high heat. Once hot, return green beans to the pan. Add a few splashes (maybe 1-3 tsp) of soy sauce. Start small, taste, and add more as they cook, based on your preferences. Stir often, making sure to brown as many sides of the beans as possible, about 5 minutes. Add salt or more soy sauce as needed.

Chinese Eggs and Tomatoes

Serves: 4-6

Ready in: 15 minutes

6 eggs

3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped

2-3 cloves of minced garlic

salt

sugar

olive oil

Heat a few splashes of olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Whisk eggs into a small bowl.  Add eggs to pan, cooking and breaking up until cooked through, like scrambled eggs, sprinkling salt as they cook. Remove eggs from pan and set aside.

Add a few more splashes of olive oil as well as the minced garlic to the pan over medium high heat. Cook until fragrant, stirring often, 1-2 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, stirring occasionally, cooking down until juices are released, about 5 minutes. Add a small handful of sugar (2-3 tsp.) to counteract the acid in the tomatoes. Add the eggs back into the pan, stirring to combine, heating until hot. Taste for flavor, adding salt as needed.

Serve over rice or noodles.

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We invite you to share in The Grove. You can link up your blog post, or share your practices, ponderings, wisdom, questions, ideas, and creative expressions with us in the comments below.

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6 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Trotter August 23, 2018

    Peaches and coconuts — what a great metaphor! But both are tasty 🙂

    1. Ashley Felder August 27, 2018

      Taught to us by the wonderful Wheelers. Can’t take credit for it! But it has served well for explaining cultural differences over the years.

  2. Patty Kerns August 23, 2018

    I live in Latin America and though things are so different from China (I don’t think I could do it but have several friends who do), I struggle with finding ingredients in my host country. I was so use to jumping in my car in the states for a 5 minute ride to a local grocery store, Buying everything a needed, and heading home. Here it takes three trips to three stores and I come home with all but one or two things, two hours of fighting traffic, and googling the words for certain items. But to no avail there is no word for that thing. Today I spent 4 hours resolving one tiny issue. Oh how appreciate the convinces of the states. But what turns my thoughts to higher matters is when I visit my local friends who struggle to put rice and beans on the table. When my sweet friend says my children went to bed hungry last night because I didn’t sell enough at the market or in the community. My heart aches when I see her son struggle because he needs glasses because of a cataract (He is 6 years Old.) and there is no money for surgery. I cry as I see others in her community struggle with day to day living. I watch young moms do everything they can to make their children survive. So I quickly forget the frustration of being stuck in traffic when I know my friends have no money to take the bus. I thank the Father for my daily provision when I could be going to be hungry. I realize I am caught between two cultures. Yet I know I could easily have been to mom in Africa watching her child die of starvation, the mom in Latin America struggling to put food on the table, or the women trapped in Hyman trafficking in Asia. God reminds daily how much he takes care of me and so I thank Him for this opportunity to share His Son with others. Yes, I have much to learn here and I can’t fix all the problems but I know Someone Who Can.

    1. Ashley Felder August 27, 2018

      Yes, yes, yes. Perspective is huge and I’m thankful to have eyes opened to the rest of the world. It’s so easy to get stuck in a bubble and then start complaining about what’s not going right–we all do it! Thankful God continually reminds us–in one way or another–this is not our home.

  3. Katherine August 24, 2018

    I also thought drinking hot water was weird at first, but after only 18 months in China I was hooked. Now its a handy drink of choice when I’m back in Australia and visiting Bible study groups from morning til night. I get offered tea and coffee so many times a day but I really don’t want that much caffeine. And I love that egg and tomato dish, its the only one I learned. I use chives/spring onions and ginger instead of garlic.
    And the bit about not knowing you wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone reminded me of when I met a Cambodian on the plane on my first trip to Cambodia. I had been hanging out with Cambodians in Australia and I had been able to talk to them, so I got a shock when it turned out that I couldn’t actually speak to Cambodians who didn’t know English. I feel like I should have seen that coming, but somehow it was still a surprise.

    1. Ashley Felder August 27, 2018

      So many similar experiences! I love that you’re taking the hot water tradition around the world with you. 🙂

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