I have mentioned before that I was raised by an American mother and an Italian father. Throughout my entire life, I never had one country with which I fully identified. As a child in Italy people called me “American”, as I never really fit in with the Italians, having watched very little Italian TV and having never gone to Italian schools. In the US I have always been referred to as “Italian”, having never lived there, been raised in that culture or having any kind of regional American accent. It’s more of a pan-US accent, and many Americans who meet me are unsure as to how to place it, and would believe me if I told them I was from a different English-speaking country. This odd position that I always had between countries has given me a knack for spotting and scrutinizing cultural differences, and they are things that I enjoy writing about.
However, it is also clear to me that many people have a very hard time understanding different cultural perspectives. I would like to illustrate what I mean with a very mild story, about pasta.
When I was very young, around 7 years old, I had an Australian art student as a babysitter. She was horrible, but that is besides the point. One day I was at her apartment, and she asked me if I would like to have some pasta. I said yes, of course, I was very hungry. She proceeded to boil some spaghetti, put them in a plate, cover them in ketchup, and ask me if I wanted cheese on that. At this point of the story, I pause for effect.
The reason I pause is because this gets a very strong reaction from all Italians that I tell this story to. It starts with this face:
Followed by a tirade of What?! I don’t believe it!! How could she possibly?! When I proceed to tell them that I politely pretended that I wasn’t hungry any more, they are admiring that I didn’t throw it in her face.
When I tell the story to people who are not Italian, some react in the same way, whereas others don’t understand why I pause in my story. “So?” they ask me. “That sounds like a real treat! My brothers/sisters/nephews/younger self would love that. What is the point of this story?” They scoff that I didn’t eat it. “If you’re hungry, you’ll eat pretty much anything”.
The fact is, I was not a picky eater by any stretch. At 3 you could find me eating very spicy mussels. At 2 you could find me eating caviar, which I called “grapes”. In my world there were 3 categories of food: Things I liked, things I didn’t really like but ate anyway to be polite, and (the rarest category) things I couldn’t eat, even to be polite, but which I must refuse most politely because it is rude to insult other people’s cooking. Pasta with ketchup was the first time I encountered food that I could not eat, even to be polite. I didn’t hate ketchup, I had a very little bit with fries, but I could never, to this day, eat a full cup of it. It tastes like chemicals, it is salty sweet and sour all at the same time, it burns my throat and feels like a sensory overload, like trying to eat a teaspoon of salt, or drink a tall glass of very salty lemon juice with a dash of floor cleaner in there.
The point of my telling you this story is that it can be extremely hard to put cultural differences into someone else’s context. If I try to explain to people how gross the idea of pasta with ketchup is to people who don’t see what the big deal is, I come off as either hyperbolic or elitist.
Me: She might as well have placed a bowl of crickets in front of me!
Them: Oh come on! Pasta with ketchup is not the same as bugs!
The truth? If the crickets are dead, cooked and spiced, I would definitely choose crickets over ketchup pasta. Who knows, I might even like them, I’ve never had crickets. If they were alive? OK, maybe I’d choose the pasta.
Me: OK then it’s like…. it’s like…. What if I made your kartoffelsalat with ketchup instead of mayo and… and… added soy sauce and fish oil and dumped a handful of salt and sugar on it?
Them: *eye roll* did you also throw a fit because there was no lemon wedge in your Evian?
There is no way for me to modify the story so that they can understand the Italian reaction.
What I am trying to get at is, when you see a post titled “cultural differences”, you might get the reaction of “what is the big deal”, when I describe the way other cultures react to a practice that is normal in your own. I am not trying to make judgements or place one culture over another. I will be telling stories in the interest of curiosity of what little things some people take for granted. I will be happy to delve into the nuance in the comments, if you have questions. Sometimes, you wont be able to find a way to relate, and will just have to content yourself with “I don’t get it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is being stupid”.
I purposely chose a mild, simple little story to start with, so that you get the general idea. I’m curious to see where it goes from here.