This month’s guest post is from author Shannon Young. She writes:
I’ve always been an adventurous eater. If anyone at the table is going to finish off the stewed bullfrog or order the hummus with worms on the side, it’s me. I can eat chickens feet and sea urchins with the best of them. I don’t claim to like everything, but I’ll try it at least once. When I started a cross-cultural relationship with a man from Hong Kong, it never occurred to me that food would become our primary source of conflict.
Our love story started at a fencing club in London during my study abroad semester. Ben was a quick-witted law student with fast hands. I was a wide-eyed outsider with precise point control.
Fencing was our common language at first. We talked strategy and traded war stories. We competed for pride, bantered over points.
Then we started getting to know more about our lives off-piste. Ben’s parents, one British and one Chinese, lived in Hong Kong. I had eight siblings back home in Arizona. He told stories about boarding school, where he’d learned to fence. I told him about being homeschooled until tenth grade. He was matter-of-fact about his worldly upbringing, and he made me laugh. I had never met anyone like him.
Soon, we were kissing on street corners and exploring the nooks and crannies of the city. Then he invited me over and we cooked together.
Ben didn’t want to use a recipe. I was skeptical, but didn’t mind too much. Cooking for me had always been a slapdash affair. I was raised on boxed macaroni with hamburger, pasta sauce from jars, peanut butter sandwiches, and year-round barbecues. Growing up in a family of nine children means quick meals and cooking shortcuts. And what was wrong with using a recipe?
But Ben wanted to feel it, to taste the ingredients, to experiment. He was particular about the details in a way that seemed kind of unnecessary to me.
While we cooked, I wanted to flirt. I tried to snuggle against him, kiss his cheek, duel with uncooked pasta straws, but he clammed up. It was like I’d tried to make out with him in front of his boss. For him, cooking was serious business.
At the time, I was unaware of the typical Hong Kong person’s ardent relationship with food.
Our romance thrived in the heady impermanence of a study abroad fling. But when I went back to the US, we decided to try a long distance relationship—an extreme long distance relationship—and see where this adventure led us.
For three and a half years, we lived in separate countries, always together, always in love. We’d turn up at each other’s homes and set out on mini honeymoons. Ben loved to walk the aisles of foreign supermarkets, marveling at the choices. I loved to hear him speak in different languages: Cantonese, German, accented English.
I visited him in Hong Kong, where he took me for some of the most amazing meals of my life: hot, intricate pho, sweet roast pork falling off the bone.
We continued to fence, continued to cook, continued to be fascinated by our differences. We saw each other infrequently enough that it was always special. It wasn’t the workaday relationship of a couple living in the same city. It was a swashbuckling, globetrotting kind of love.
But we had to make sure we still liked each other when we lived in the same country, so I moved to Hong Kong.
A month later, his company sent him back to London for a year.
While he was gone, I began my own love affair with his city. I ate traditional foods, drank tea, explored random little restaurants, but for me it was all about the new experiences. My palate wasn’t all that nuanced, and I was happy to eat most of the foods I found in Hong Kong. Apparently, I was missing the point.
Ben returned to Hong Kong, and in 2013 we married and moved in together for the first time.
The quirky differences I barely noticed during our romance took center stage in our marriage. I often cut corners in the kitchen, even down to washing and reusing the same knife for every conceivable task: chopping garlic, peeling potatoes, slicing chicken breast, opening packages. Ben also said I set things on fire too much.
He still approached cooking like a composer.
He had strong opinions about pans. He blended his own spices for curry, owned multiple kinds of soy sauce, and created increasingly refined variations on the spaghetti sauce that I would have been happy to eat out of a jar.
We liked being married, but didn’t get along particularly well in the kitchen. He wanted me to cook with him, but didn’t want to make unrelated conversation while we worked. He’d grimace if I kissed his shoulder by the hot oil or chattered about our plans for the weekend while he chopped onions.
I’d try cooking on my own, sneaking peeks at Martha Stewart’s website and setting dishes in front of him with aplomb. He’d say, “I like the sauce, but the chicken is a bit dry. Maybe you could try brining it next time.”
He meant it as constructive criticism, an effort to teach me something he cares about, but his words made irritation simmer inside me.
I’d been taught to always thank the cook profusely, whether you liked the meal or not. In my family, the harshest critique you could possibly utter was “This dish isn’t a keeper.”
The fact that I am an adventurous eater didn’t help. He didn’t want me to eat weird foods; he wanted me to care about the difference between a good meal, a great meal, and an excellent meal. I often can’t tell.
On the other hand, I realized it hurt him if I said food isn’t that big of a deal or that the details don’t matter. He is from Hong Kong; he is half Chinese.
Food is a very big deal. He takes pride and joy in cooking. It’s his passion, a passion shared by everyone in Hong Kong, it seemed, except for me.
Though our dissimilar backgrounds are usually a source of interest and excitement, this is one cultural difference that does not resolve in a neat little box. I love Ben deeply, but can’t make myself love food with the same intensity.
But I’ve learned that a relationship is like cooking. You feel it, taste the ingredients, experiment. There’s give and take, and the two of you are working toward something that’s better than you ever imagined it would be, no matter how different you were in the beginning. Over time we’ve become better at communicating, better at cutting each other slack and acknowledging our different perspectives on food. It gets sweeter with every meal.
Our love started with swords, with playful conflict and a celebration of our differences. But our marriage is lived with paring knives and pans and compromise. We love each other deeply, and we use an extra measure of patience in the kitchen.
Shannon Young is an American author living in Hong Kong. Her new travel memoir Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong is about the year she followed her long distance boyfriend to Asia only for him to be sent away to London a month later. She edited the expat women in Asia anthology, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit.