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Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.


That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.


We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.


Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂


Inside a high-end grocery store.


What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.


From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

All Packaged Up (Picture Prattle)

7 Jul
Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

When you travel, you usually expect to find difference. You expect to hear new languages, see alternative clothing styles, and learn about the ways another culture perceives the world. You’ll find these things, for sure. But you’ll also find a lot of nuances in the products people use, even for something as unassuming as a bar of soap.

Our worlds are built on little blocks of accepted behaviors and patterns. Whether you like it or not, much of your daily routine is rooted in the products you use. The shampoo you wash your hair with, the cereal you enjoy for breakfast, the cookies you eat as a snack. When you travel abroad, you realize that many of the products you perceive as “givens” are only givens to you. You may think Oreos are the reigning sandwich cookie, everywhere. But then you go to Peru and see Casino cookies and realize you might not be so right, after all. And then you go to China and try to replace your shampoo, the one you can buy at any drugstore or grocery store in the USA- and you realize that perhaps the things you perceive as “ordinary” products aren’t necessarily ordinary for everyone, everywhere. I like to think about how it’d be to live in a world that’s defined by a whole other ecosystem of brands and products. What would be my go-to soap? My favorite brand of beer? My go-to indulgent packaged snack?

The consumer packaged goods industry fascinates me. Modern innovations mean that giant corporations can mass produce, mass ship, and get a worldwide reach that’s bigger than the world has ever seen before. And yet, local preferences persist, sometimes at the brand level, and sometimes at the product level. I always check out grocery stores when I’m abroad, and I specifically look to see how many products I recognize. Given my love of cookies, it’s no wonder I tend to do this exercise in the cookie aisle before any other part of the store.

The next time you’re traveling, no matter where it is, take a look at the assortment in the local grocery store. Do you see all the products you’re used to? Or are your perceived “staples” perhaps not universally staples, after all? If you lived in this place, how would your behaviors and preferences change? What products would blend into your life?

Lost in Translation

15 Jan
This is posted at a cultural site in Nimes, France

This is posted at a cultural site in Nimes, France

At some point, you’ve probably laughed at the absurdity of a poorly translated message. Perhaps you were in another country and read a translation so wrong, it was ludicrous. I don’t support laughing at people who make mistakes while trying to use foreign language skills. But I can’t help but giggle myself when it’s clear the poor translation is the work of an text-based tool. Those 1:1 tools just can’t pinpoint nuance, and they often suggest literal translations that make little sense, or suggest the wrong sense altogether.

Translation has been in the news recently thanks to Google products that promise workable, real-time translation. Google’s Word Lens translates signs with an impressive text overlay, while its live-audio service allows you to have a real-time conversation with someone speaking a different language. Both tools are a big improvement over pure text-field translation, and I can think of many scenarios where they’d prove useful and meaningful. Still, a couple of friends and I had to wonder: will tools ever get the cultural side of translation right?

When you study a foreign language you soon realize that translation is an art, not a science. Translating word-for-word can be clumsy at best, and culturally insensitive at worst. Gaining fluency isn’t just about vocabulary: it’s about knowing the right way to say things, and when to say them. So as you learn a new language, you also learn a new way of expressing yourself. Proverbs and idioms add another layer of complexity, as they’re often very different across languages and cultures. Try to translate your own culture’s idioms directly into a foreign tongue and you’ll likely receive blank looks because the intended meaning just isn’t there.

Add in cultural concepts, and you’ll find it’s even harder to get your point across once you switch tongues. This past week, a Facebook friend posted an article about culture and translation that really resonated with me. The article talks about “cultural concepts we don’t have in the U.S.” Examples range from a Norwegian term that expresses the benefits of being outside, to a Danish term that signifies “a deep sense of cosy.” As demonstrated by the article, you can certainly translate these ideas into other languages and get to an understandable place. But the translated versions just don’t have the same imbued meaning when they’re used by someone with a different cultural context. Trying to learn these concepts, and what they imply in their native cultures, can give us new ways of looking at our world.

I’m hopeful that new translation tools will help us be even more connected with fellow humans all around the world. But I hope they doesn’t inspire people to get lazy about learning new languages, or lazy about immersing themselves in other cultures. There is so much more to understanding other people than just being able to carry on a functional, efficient conversation. We’d be silly indeed to let technology take the place of trying to understand for ourselves.

Just for fun, because they really are good for a laugh: here are some of my favorite mis-translations from travels. These are clear victims of unedited, web-based translations.

For the People, By The People

9 Sep

We like to think that we have refined taste, whether we’re talking food, hobbies, or art. But if you actually track what average people do on a day-to-day basis, you’re more likely to see them watching reality TV and eating Cheerios than going to the opera and cooking foie gras.

Back in the 90s, a Russian artist pair called Komar and Melamid wanted to explore what the average, everyday man was looking for in art. They realized that the tastes of the art elite were likely a poor indicator of what most people would want to see in a painting. Playing off the prevalence of opinion polls and market research in consumer culture, the artists hired a polling firm to help dissect what people living in different countries find visually appealing. Through a series of polls and focus groups, the artists were able to chart out what different kinds of people preferred in their paintings. For example, in the US, 44% of people said blue was their preferred color. 88% of Americans preferred to see a landscape in their paintings. Respondents liked seeing people, and wanted the painting to be as realistic as possible. Results were surprisingly consistent across countries and demographics, with some variations here or there.

The whole project had an edge of social commentary, as the artists were making a point about making decisions based on polls, about average taste, and about consumerism in general. Once Komar and Melamid had their data in hand, they set out to make what they called the “Most Wanted” and “Least Wanted” paintings. They incorporated the colors, styles and subjects that floated to the tops or bottoms of the polls. The resulting American painting is a landscape in soft colors with a portrait of George Washington in the mix. The “Least Wanted” painting, on the other hand, is tiny and full of harsh edges and geometric shapes.

America’s “Most Wanted” painting, according to the artists’ poll.

The “Least Wanted” painting for Americans. Quite different!

Komar and Melamid also created paintings for the other countries, then released all of the paintings along with the actual data on what people liked. They held a series of town halls and roundtables about the paintings, too. Some were with “average citizens,” and some were with people from the art world. The art world rejected the “Most Wanted” paintings, unsurprisingly. But what’s even more interesting is that “average citizens” didn’t immediately relate to them, either. When asked outright what their dream painting would be, most people had much more imaginative answers than what you see in the “Most Wanted” painting. So how do we explain the gap between what people came up with as their “dream painting” and what people replied to in the polls?

Well, for starters, asking someone an open-ended question is much different than giving people a list of possible replies. Second, few people would probably come up with the idea of a blue-tinted landscape painting as their dream painting, even if it is what they find most pleasing, overall. Asking people about which individual elements they prefer, and making something composite that speaks to their emotions, are two different things. But whether or not these paintings are really the most or least wanted, or somewhere in between, Komar and Melamid’s project raised a lot of interesting questions about art, its purpose, and its target. Should there be different approaches to making art for the masses, and art for the elite? Should art for the masses even exist?

I’m curious how this project would differ if the artists did it today. Would there be references to technology? Would people still prefer historical figures, or would they want to see more modern celebrities? Would most people still say that painting just needs to be nice to look at, versus having an explicit goal?

You can check out all the data from their project here, and the resulting paintings here. Which painting best represents what you think you want from art?

Around the World

6 Jun

When you think about foreign countries, what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s monuments and museums, delicacies and diversions. But when you move beyond the things tourists go out of their way to see, the bulk of what happens in any given country is everyday life. Most people aren’t going to the Eiffel Tower or enjoying high tea or taking a narrated tour down a canal. Most people are just going about their lives – sleeping, eating, trying to make a living.

From the photo series: a Vietnamese rice farmer and his daily sustenance. Click on the photo to access the full article about this project

There’s been a slew of photojournalism features floating around the Internet that show people around the world in their everyday lives. For example, a recent series compared the daily diets of people across continents, social groups and economic classes. These series take seemingly mundane daily experiences, and show how many differences there are in the simplest things. Do you think that hard about your choice as you reach for your daily Cheerios? Probably not, because it feels like a given that you’d eat cereal, and a given that you’d pick Cheerios. But when you look at pictures of breakfasts around the world, you remember that very little is a given. We all have defaults, many of them culturally-derived. Your “normal” is someone else’s “abnormal.”

These series have become popular partly because the photography itself is so striking. The photos tend to be of a single subject, and that subject’s objects or food. The result is vivid commentary on consumerism, on culture, on global awareness. The photo show nuances of lifestyles, and all the different ways you can go through the human experience. They remind us that not everyone lives the way we do, that not everyone has the same preferences, that not everyone has the same priorities. They remind us that even with the internet and world tours and all these things that seem to keep us so connected, we’re still quite out of touch with what “reality” means for a lot of other people out there. How you decorate your child’s bedroom may not feel like a cultural statement to you, but it is. Your daily breakfast is a testament to your defaults. What you drink with dinner speaks to your framing of human needs. But sometimes you need a point of comparison to actually put your own behaviors and preferences into context, especially when the bulk of people immediately around you seem to have pretty similar behaviors and preferences.

My challenge to you today: as you go about the rest of your day, think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Where did those choices come from? How firmly rooted are your beliefs? Would someone around the world find your “normal” to be “abnormal?”

My challenge to you as you travel: try your hardest to get beyond the museums and monuments, and try to learn about what it’s like to truly, really live somewhere else. Where would you buy your food? What would you eat? What toys would your kid use? Would your life look remotely the same?



A Year Abroad

8 Apr
In front of Las Ventas in Madrid. It's a bullfighting ring, but I never actually saw a fight there -  just went to the museum!

In front of Las Ventas in Madrid. It’s a bullfighting ring, but I never actually saw a fight there – just went to the museum!

For many U.S. students, a semester abroad is a big part of their college experience.  But a mere 50 years ago, studying abroad was much less common, and a much more daring undertaking. One of my favorite professors recently co-wrote a memoir about studying abroad in the 1960s. The first half of Crossing Cultures contains my professor’s story about studying abroad in France, and the second half was penned by a French woman who spent a year abroad in the U.S. around the same time. Each woman shares about being in a foreign land, learning about a different culture and making life-long friends with the people she met while abroad.

Both authors wrote with emotion, personality and depth. They also both did a fantastic job saving correspondence, tickets and diaries from their years abroad, so the book contains a lot of personal artifacts in addition to their anecdotes. They talk about normal touristy things, of course, but also about how they felt, and how their thinking evolved over the course of their time in another country. The resulting book isn’t just about travel: it’s about the self-awareness and self-growth that comes with spending time in another culture.

The book is in English and French, side-by-side.

Beyond basic logistics like crossing the ocean on a boat rather than a plane, I found quite a few differences between my professor’s experience abroad, and my own semester I spent in Spain.  Altogether, her’s was a rather different sort of adventure, with less communication to the folks back home as well as less knowledge going into her trip. She didn’t have the luxury of looking up directions on Google Street View, searching online for student groups, or calling home every couple days via Skype.

As I read my professor’s stories,  I was also struck by the loose structure of her study abroad program. Or, really, the lack of structure altogether. My semester in Spain was organized by my U.S. university. We had homestay families, organized outings, and a full-time staff member who handled a lot of behind-the-scenes logistics. My European friends on Erasmus exchanges laughed at us, telling me that U.S. students were “babied” by their universities. And actually, I completely agree. While it was nice to have things arranged for me, my professor had a truer sense of adventure, and likely a more authentic experience. Once she got to France she was entirely on her own: no one to help her if she had a problem finding housing, no one setting up her class schedule, no gaggle of Americans to speak to in English.

The entrance to my friend's "cave," dubbed the "Party Cave" by students on my program. It was more or less my friend's version of a basement to hang out in.

The entrance to my friend’s “cave,” dubbed the “Party Cave” by students on my program. It was more or less my friend’s version of a basement to hang out in.

My professor’s experiences had a profound impact on her life. She became a French instructor, and part of her responsibilities included leading students on a summer program in France’s Loire Valley. I had the privilege of going with her one summer, and very much appreciated how much she encouraged us to get beyond our group housing, beyond our school schedule, and just explore for ourselves. She purposely built in days where we had nothing “official” to do so we could properly wander and learn from the world around us. She encouraged us to make friends with the locals nearby, even when that meant coming home absurdly late or wandering off to someone’s “party cave” (see picture at right). So even though we technically had a structured program, we had as much freedom as she could give us to make discoveries for ourselves.

I had a wonderful time that summer and learned so much. From my classes, from my local friends, from my professor. And that great experience in France inspired me to try really, really hard to make local friends when I spent a semester in Spain a couple years later. An effort that, luckily, truly paid off and made my experience in Spain so much richer than it might have been otherwise.

Just one more observation about Crossing Cultures: it makes me so happy to see that both authors are still in touch with the friends they made during their adventures in the 60s. I treasure the friends I made while abroad, and can only hope we’re still in touch 50 years from now.

Below are some photos from my time abroad. If you’re interested in learning more about the book Crossing Cultures, you can check it out on Amazon, or through Lulu.


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