J Simens.com

“Cultural Confusion” in your own home?


I can handle the first insult (according to my culture) but the second one puts me over my comfort zone.

fat turkey
What has been your favorite Thanksgiving story?

And it is Thanksgiving. And we invited the guests.  And it was early in the evening.  Thanksgivings as a new wife can be stressful.

Then my husband moved me 1,500 miles away from where I call home.

Then he invited a whole table full of his co-workers. You might think this is a Thanksgiving that is memorable. At first, when my husband suggested that we ask his colleagues from China who have never had a traditional American Thanksgiving to our home, I was eager. I had visions of everyone sitting around smiling and enjoying the feast I had carefully constructed. I was up early; the house smelled wonderful with the mixture of butter, onions and sage and a host of other things ready to be stuffed in the turkey. Then I tackled the homemade pies.

Growing up in Kansas and spending hour after hour in my grandma’s kitchen, I can make a “mean” apple pie,  and the must have pumpkin pies. I stirred, stuffed and muffed around the kitchen all day. At 5:00 pm our guests were to arrive. At 4:45 pm everyone came right on cue. Eight of the nine visitors had a camera around their neck. This should have been my first hint that this might not be a typical Thanksgiving dinner.

For you see my new husband was the boss!

Yes, I had forgotten to factor in that perhaps our guests that I thought were so eager to come to Thanksgiving was, in fact, doing a “work obligation” on their day off. At the start of the event, everyone just mingled around, and I began to relax. We exchanged names and proper words while my husband was eagerly getting everyone a drink.

["Then our first cultural mishap occurred.."]

The Chinese spokesman cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Simens, Thank you so much for having all of us here to celebrate with you and your fat wife.”

My husband looked awkwardly at me, but his “deer in the headlight looks” told me he wanted to see my reaction and intervene if he needed to. As you know, I am well aware of cultural nuances, so I tipped my head and smiled. Pardon the pun, but I knew I was a big enough person to take this comment as a praise in China – a compliment and not an American put down. As we all settled down to the large dining room table, they asked me to explain each dish and tell them a little about them. This was more like the event I had in my mind, as a teacher sharing the joys and education of  Thanksgiving.

Teaching always gives me joy

I talked about the importance of corn bread, from the American natives “Indians” such as the Cherokee or the Chickasaw the original recipes they had for these corn dishes. I explained how cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs that produce vines up to  2 meters (7 ft) long  The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant; it is initially white but turns a dark red when fully ripe. Then I explained why we have both sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes. I saved the best for last – the huge turkey. Then the observation that made the first “fat” remark seem tame happened.

“Mr. Simens, Wow, your turkey is as fat as your wife.”

“Let’s eat”, my husband said, trying to avoid any more discomfort.

The second in command of our Chinese friends felt my husband just didn’t get the compliment. He said, “Mr. Simens, We mean you are a very lucky man, you have a really big turkey and a really big wife.” ”

Bon Appetite!” my husband tried again as he laid his hand carefully across my leg and patted my thigh. He was stroking it. Was he trying to comfort me or was he just getting into position to restrain me if I decided to lunge across the table at the company representative?

Later, I was about to relax and start to enjoy the meal when I noticed everyone was eating. I hoped no one would talk with their mouth full of food (another American issue).   I then gave an inaudible thanksgiving prayer “Please don’t let anyone mention the word fat again this holiday season.” Then I silently wondered what this group of people might be doing for Christmas. What might they say about a twenty pound Christmas Brined Fresh Ham?

Thanksgiving sprouts

I hope you are building “Family Traditions” this holiday!

          I hope you and your family are creating Thanksgiving memories and better yet . . . Telling stories of Thanksgiving past so you can build up your child’s family emotion stories. Notes: The Guineafowl made its way to Europe from Africa via Turkey. Therefore they called it ‘turkey.’

(First printed in 1990 – by Julia Simens)

  • Dana
    November 8, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Cultural crossed-wires make some of the funniest stories. Thanks for sharing!

    But I’m not familiar with Asian customs, so I’m curious: What’s the meaning/tradition behind what seems to be the compliment they were trying to give? Are comments like theirs tied to an inherent awareness of the effects of poverty and hunger?

    • November 11, 2013 at 4:39 pm

      Hi Dana,
      Often having the ability to eat well is seen as a compliment. It means more than being rich, it means being rested, content and having good food on the table. Here is a nice little video that sums it up. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dzv_CMCQs4Q