When to Pour Soy Sauce on Your Mother-in-Law’s Cooking

the-joy-luck-club-by-amy-tanAnswer: Never.

If you’re a literary fanatic (or a junkie for books turned into movies), then you’ve probably read or seen Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. And who could forget the scene where a Chinese woman turned into a panic machine as her fiancé poured soy sauce all over her mother’s steamed pork?

You see, the mother had humbly suggested that her steamed pork might lack seasoning. In Chinese culture, however, this only meant that the mother was waiting for her soon-to-be son-in-law to compliment her dish. The daughter could only watch helplessly as what was supposed to be a friendly engagement dinner turned into a fiasco. Watch the scene below and prepare for awkwardness.

One could argue that the mother shouldn’t have been so coy about the whole thing, but this different approach to communication is actually a matter of culture. In their paper Culture and the Self published in 1991, social scientists Shinobu Kitayama and Hazel Rose Markus based this difference on the concept of independent vs. interdependent cultures. In countries that promote individual expression and achievement, like the US, the emphasis is on bringing out your thoughts and opinions, regardless of what other people have to say about it. Various literature and even the media would often promote that people show their “individual desire, preference, attribute, or ability,” or risk fading into the background.

At the other end, people from interdependent Asian cultures such as China and Japan focus on getting along with other people. Since humans are fundamentally connected, they need to always remember that they’re only a “participant in a larger social unit.” This unit can refer to one’s family, group of friends, or to the nation he belongs to. If you’re a member of these cultures, it is your duty to adjust your “desires, personal goals, and private emotions” in honor of your interpersonal transactions (aka, your social life).

There are even some situations where you have to read cues as to what other people expect from you.  In a dinner party, for example, “It is the responsibility of the host to be able to read the mind of the friend and offer what is best for him,” Kitayama and Markus’ paper states. This implies that if you’re a host from an interdependent culture, you don’t ask what your friend wants to have for dinner. You are expected to know what he wants to eat (after all, you’ve been together for so long, right?) This also applies to the guests, as the case was for the clueless fiance previously mentioned.

In the Philippines, however, such a polar view of culture might not be applicable because of a diverse mix of influences from both western and eastern cultures that have pervaded the country through the centuries. But there is a concept presented by Sikolohiyang Pilipino’s  Virgilio Enriquez called “pakikiramdam,” the skill of figuring out what another person is feeling and  then speaking and acting accordingly to his mood.

And as with all psychological theories, the independent vs interdependent duality has its share of critics. Understandably, many think that it is too simplistic (I certainly do), reducing cultural differences according to narrow categories. Our Cultural Psychology professor in DLSU Sir Jon Diestro pointed out that for a time, researchers simply assumed this duality to be true. But what if cultural distinctions between presumed independent and interdependent countries have more to them beyond these terms?

Still, the lesson remains: if you’re used to going straight to the point, you might need to think twice. Make sure that you get a feel for and that you read about the culture you’re visiting or want to be a part of so you don’t make the same mistake made by the fiancé in The Joy Luck Club. Don’t be the rude, ignorant white guy. Scratch that. Don’t be rude and ignorant, period.

Photo via lifewritings

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