Expat Culture Shock: Food or Swedish Fish?

Something as simple as food can be a substantial component of culture shock for a foreigner in a new country. In some situations it can be a good experience, and at other times – not so much.

For the past several years I have been living with my family in the USA, which is not my home country. My young daughter is in public school, and last year I was a Room Parent for her class. For Non-American residents I will explain that this is a parent who takes on the responsibility of supporting the teacher in organizing all class related, but non-education related, activities (picnics, field trips, in the class festivities etc).

My daughter’s teacher requested that for a class project she was working I provide…… ‘Swedish fish’. At first I did not hesitate. The request seemed obvious and clear. Then the doubt kicked in. Why would the teacher choose herring? How do I bring herring to school, and how on earth is it going to be incorporated into the project?

In this instance I was lucky, as I had a Co-Room Parent. I shared with her my concerns, and she was very understanding. She patiently explained to me that ‘Swedish Fish’ actually has nothing to do with the traditionally known aquatic vertebrate, but rather referred to a synthetic, gelatinous mold of sugar, generally chemically dyed bright red…….and offered to get it for me.

Another instance of culinary culture shock occurred several years ago while spending a weekend with my then fiancée’s family. On my way there I received a phone call from my now husband, asking me to buy ‘coffee cake’. I was very eager to oblige – imagine how well I wanted to be perceived by my future in-laws. Alas – there was not a single ‘coffee cake’ in the store…. and they had a big selection – there was almond cake, carrot cake, amaretto, chocolate chip, banana nut and countless other cake varieties, but not a single coffee cake. In this second instance I was saved again….this time by the timely invention of the cell phone….and a quick and exasperated call to my fiancée. For you non-native English speakers – ‘coffee cake’ has, in fact, nothing to do with coffee, but rather refers to ANY type of cake that can be had with coffee. Go figure.

Then there are the numerous industry created wonders, all falsely named to imply some country of origin. I don’t even mean French fries (which however most likely truly originated from an early XIX century French recipe, are by no means typical French food), but inventions like Swiss cheese, a pedestrian cheese that has likely never even seen Switzerland, a country that is home to more than 450 of the world’s best cheeses.

So hopefully you’ve gotten my point…..that the world of food is a whole category unto itself in contributing to culture shock.

Whether you are moving from eating a lot of your meals with your fingers, or the gourmet and sophisticated world of French cuisine, or whether from the leisurely meal as a social event, as in Italy, to fast-food drowned America, you are in for a shock and challenging adjustment.

The long term lack of familiarity in such an important aspect of functioning, such as with food, can take a significant toll on you if you are an expat who is trying to adapt to many other changes in your new world at the same time. Said another way, it is not easy to hold your food tray while the whole rug is being pulled from underneath you.

If you are curious and make an effort to learn new things, it will be easier for you to adjust to a new and different cuisine, and once you master the art of doing as the locals do you will be able to happily immerse yourself in discovering your new and exotic culinary world. Many cultures place great stock in their cuisines and may attach social norms, class distinctions and other ‘hidden’ connections to the foods that they eat and serve, and it can be both an intellectually stimulating, as well as necessary to survival to understand and appreciate these subtleties.

Be prepared for this part of the learning experience. Even if you are fluent in the language of your new country, food will be one of those areas that will have a language of its own, which although foreign to you, just like the language – can be learned. And always remember keep your sense of humour!

Get ready, do your homework and enjoy the ride!

Source by Joanna Fleming

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