As Long As It’s Not Illegal: How I Adapted to a “New” Culture

Erica Ingram

Erica Ingram

Staff Writer

At some point in time, all of us will experience having to adapt to a new situation. As Thunderbirds, we all likely will have or have had an international experience or two in our careers. It’s important to be prepared to adapt regardless of the situation. In my experience as a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served from 2017 to 2019 in China, adapting wasn’t an option. It was mandatory. And the situations weren’t always ideal. However, I adhered to three rules throughout my service that really helped me in almost every situation:

  1. Don’t have any expectations.
  2. Try anything so long as it’s legal.
  3. Don’t judge something until you’ve tried it the second time.

These three rules were a guiding light to me and helped me to figure out exactly where my boundaries were. 

Rule 1: Don’t have any expectations

Firstly, leave your expectations at the door. One example is with food. One can consider American Chinese food and China’s Chinese food to be completely different and almost totally unrelated categories of food. 

Something a lot of Westerners don’t realize is that real Chinese food is NOTHING like what we can buy at Panda Express. It’s barely even close. In particular, the food in Sichuan (or Szechuan), where I lived, is not at all like what we Americans are led to believe. For example, I remember lots of Chinese people on Weibo (aka Chinese Twitter) getting very confused about the 2017 return of the Szechuan sauce at McDonald’s or why people were clamoring for it when it didn’t taste remotely like any kind of Chinese food. (Shoutout to Rick and Morty fans). So, don’t come to China expecting that Chinese food will taste like orange chicken and Beijing beef from Panda Express, or you’ll be sorely disappointed. 

Another thing that is extremely important to remember is that coming into a new country with minimal or no expectations means that you must leave any preconceived notions about that country on the plane that flew you in. That includes the cuisine, the people, the environment, etc. All of us have unconscious biases, and it’s important to be aware of them. It’s also important to separate your prejudices about others from reality. Be prepared to change. 

Rule 2: Try anything so long as it’s legal.

This is where you can test your boundaries. Picture this. You’re sitting at a barbecue with some local Chinese friends in the middle of Chengdu, Sichuan, in the sweltering heat of early July. Then, suddenly, one friend suggests you try something new. Hesitantly, you ask what it is. “It’s pork!” they say, so you say yes, figuring that pork is fine to eat. Then they bring you a small plate of a wrinkly pale pink lump of something dusted in dried chili peppers. This can’t be what I think it is…is it? You frantically think to yourself. You dig a small fork into the tofu-like lump, and everyone watches as you take a bite. As soon as the bite of something touches your tongue, an intense pork flavor envelopes your mouth, followed by a strong saltiness as the tofu-thing melts in your mouth. It wasn’t bad…just strange. One friend pipes up, “Did you like it? It was pig’s brain.” 

You’re a little shocked, but at the same time, you have to admit it wasn’t terrible. The texture was kind of weird, and it had a strange aftertaste. It was definitely not something you’d have reached for, but it didn’t taste…how you thought a brain would taste, weird as it sounds. Maybe it won’t necessarily be a cooked brain next time, but unique experiences such as these allow you to build connections with others. It shows you’re open to new things and are curious and willing to learn about other people’s cultures. When people see your openness, this can encourage them to want to share more with you, but at the same time, this can help establish boundaries. This brings me to my final rule.

Rule 3: Don’t judge something until you’ve tried it the second time.

When it comes to food especially, sometimes the first time you try something can leave you with an incorrect impression, and it may be prudent to try it again. A good example of this is a famous dish called hotpot in Sichuan and Chongqing. First impressions for a Westerner who isn’t used to spicy food is that it’s a big, hellish-looking red, oily, and boiling iron pot full of red dried peppers. The broiling bubbles popping and splashing everywhere make it look like a red soup. (Don’t drink it though!) A lot of Americans might find the variety of organ meats that are typical in this dish to be weird. Don’t worry–it gave me some pause, too! Some typical meat ingredients would be cow stomach, cow tongue, duck intestine, pig stomach, sheep tongue, etc. 

Maybe you’re like me, and the first time you tried duck intestine, you found it was too chewy and had a disgusting aftertaste. But the second time, after much encouragement from Chinese counterparts, you find yourself dipping the pink slimy thing into the boiling oil and letting it sit for a couple minutes. “Okay, it’s good now,” they urge you. You withdraw your chopsticks from the oil and find it has shrunk, turned pale pink, and is covered in spices. “Try it!” they say. You remember the first time you tried it and inwardly recoil, but decide, if it still tastes nasty, you can chug the jasmine tea you bought to wash away the taste. Plus, you don’t want to be rude. Hesitantly, you raise the chopsticks to your lips and take a bite. 

…It’s really good! Still chewy, but also pretty tasty! And with that, you’ve discovered a new favorite that you had previously written off. 

Conclusion

It goes without saying that any of these three principles apply to every other experience you may have, not just with food. However, it’s important to keep in mind that being open minded also means confronting your own inherent prejudices. This may be uncomfortable, but it often leads to unforgettable adventures. You may even have people you care about imposing their own biases on you before or even while you’re in a foreign country. For example, before I left for China, my dad was opposed to the idea based on the fact that China is communist. His prejudice came from having grown up with anti-communist propaganda. It did give me a small amount of pause before I arrived, but I stuck to my three rules and was able to forge long-lasting relationships despite my initial hesitation. I believe that these rules will guide you through most events that upend your status quo, whether that be moving to a new country, city, state, province, or even while changing jobs. It takes time, so be patient with yourself, and in time, you will be able to establish new relationships and have new experiences. 

Hotpot
Another version of hotpot
Mapo Tofu
Xiao Min
noodles, tofu, red pepper, and bean broth
300-Year-Old Restaurant Store Front
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