America through In-laws

It was a great trip to the States. I had been bracing myself for wacky cross-cultural antics, but nothing particularly noteworthy transpired. I didn’t have many surprises of my own, either. Rather, this time I enjoyed seeing my country through my the eyes of my in-laws.

Here are a few little notes:

– My father-in-law cooked himself a waffle at the hotel breakfast buffet and then ate it with salt and pepper, lamenting that there was no hot sauce.
– On the very first day in Tampa, I woke up to my Chinese family all watching TV. Curious what show they had been sucked into, I was amused to discover that it was Jerry Springer. “Why are these people so angry?” they wanted to know.
– When there’s no common language, gestures can be quite misleading. Trying to communicate, “I’m full and it was a great meal, but I need a toothpick” can somehow become, “I have heartburn and I need medication immediately.”
– My in-laws exclaimed at how crisp and sweet fresh American corn is. I was horrified to learn they preferred it mushy and/or chewy.
– American food comes in enormous quantities, and is frequently way too sweet. (My wife demanded to know why American cake always has so much frosting… which she weirdly calls 奶油, a word which more commonly means “cream.”)
– No one would go on the Montu at Busch Gardens with me except for my mother-in-law. That was pretty awesome.
– My father-in-law, who thought he could eat spicy food, has a newfound respect for Mexican chilies, courtesy of a dish called camarones a la diabla, from Del Valle on Fowler Avenue, Tampa (best Mexican food I’ve had outside of Mexico!).
– In the absence of a gas range, an electric wok is pretty all right for home-cooked Chinese food.
– My in-laws were impressed that total strangers kept greeting them everywhere they went. The friendliness of strangers was something they felt they could really get used to.
– No one took much notice of how fat Americans are.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I wonder if my wife would put hot sauce on a waffle…

  2. The first person to whoop me at ping-pong when I arrived in China back in 2001 was a mature-aged Chinese woman. Is there nothing they can’t do?

  3. I feel the same way about the American predilection for piled-high frosting. But then, Chinese cakes often have all those crummy tiramisu-like fruit-flavored fillings. And those are gross too.

  4. I’ve been known to put salsa on my waffles. I’ve also entertained the idea of putting green onion and more salt into my waffle batter to make a green-onion pancake style belgian waffle.

  5. Henning Says: July 29, 2009 at 3:16 am

    Hot sauce on waffles…

    John, your father in law might be up tp something large.
    Think of it, gourmet chocolate with hot pepper is also highly popular.

    Did you give it a try?

  6. My mom has the same problem with corn. She actually hates how crisp and sweet the corn is here, she misses the chewiness of the corn you get from the corner of the street in China. I’ve always found that kind of interesting, of all the food here to pick on, corn was one of them. Not that I dislike the corn in China, I kind of like both, but I felt the corn in the US was different enough to deserve it’s own evaluation…

  7. It’s interesting that Shanghainese thought American food was too sweet, given the ragging everyone else in China gives them about adding to sugar to everything. My wife thought everything was way too salty.

    Hot sauce on waffles sounds terrific, actually.

  8. When I first moved to China a fellow expat told me that Chinese bread tastes like cake, while Chinese cake tastes like bread. I used to love cake but at birthday parties here I typically dodge it.

    A Chinese friend told me that she was appalled by how willingly Americans walked barefoot, sat on the floor, and put bags and backpacks on the floor.

  9. Great list, John. The corn thing floored me too when I had it on the cob for the first time a few months ago. My daughter had been eating it for breakfast (of all things) for days, and it looked pretty good, so I thought I’d have a piece to stave off breakfast boredom. Imagine my surprise at biting into something chewy and flavorless that seemed not far off from what we used to call “feed corn”, for animals only.

    I told her we must have bought old corn. But she took a bite, “yummm!”, and proceeded to eat the rest.

  10. Matt,

    Chinese bread tastes like cake, while Chinese cake tastes like bread

    That’s a brilliant observation. It’s true that the two are way more similar in China. I bet you might even find some people in China how would define cake as a type of bread, whereas this would be much less likely in the States.

    • This happened once when I made some instant hayashi rice sauce, minus the rice. I went to the corner store to buy some bread to go with it, and after I took the first bite of it, it tasted like sweet cake and nothing like bread…needless to say, I tossed the food and just ordered take out instead.

  11. Beijing Sounds,

    Yeah, I have had similar experiences in the past. But I always thought that if the people that like chewy/mushy corn in China could only try the crisp, sweet, wonderful corn we have in the USA, they would instantly fall in love with it.

    Reality is tough.

  12. The waffle may have been seen as something like 煎饼, which I’ve had in Beijing. It’s like a crêpe with egg, rice cake, hot sauce, and a few other things. I always get mine with hot sauce, anyway. And the thing they make it on looks like a cousin of a waffle iron.

  13. Odd that they didn’t love the corn – it’s maddening to see how often people in Shanghai walk around holding onto a half a cob with plastic eating tasteless, mushy, over-boiled corn… only to have it stuck in the teeth for the rest of the day. American (and Canadian!) corn rules.

    Cake is a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve been complaining for years in North American and here in China about how everything’s 30% cake and 70% frosting. I order cake, I want cake. I do like the fruit on top of them here. So much better than the pork floss and wieners on bread.

    And though waffles may resemble 饼, I think your father-in-law should be force-fed blackberry and whipped-cream (the real stuff, not the fake) on top of Belgian style waffles. Mmm, salivating…

  14. Great notes! Hey you have a brave mother-in-law 🙂 I’m surprised they didn’t comment on Americans’ obesity. Chinese must get a lot fatter now. Coz I know that was the first thing I noticed when I came here.

  15. Watching Jerry Springer and “Why are these people so angry?” I’d love to hear your explanation in Chinese!

    “Well, dad… these people enjoy walking around without clothes…”


    “Well, mom… that girl with the tattoos slept with that guy and that guy slept with his girlfriend’s friend. which happened to be the best friend of the tattoo girl and they both slept with the guy with the beard. That’s why they are fighting. Understand? Now let’s have breakfast.”

  16. I have a heavy duty sweet tooth, and I still think cakes these days have a sickening amount of frosting. I don’t remember it always being that way.

    One time in Hungary I made chocolate chip cookies for my Hungarian in-laws. They had never heard of them before. After seeing me add a whole stick of butter to the mix, they were horrified and reluctant to eat it. From then on, they called them “butter cookies.”

  17. This list made me laugh!

    From what I see here, corn in China is like coconuts in the US. My aunt from the Philippines says the coconuts here are all spoiled. I wonder if any Americans who get to try fresh coconuts think they taste funny.

  18. John,
    lost time reader, first time post.
    I want offer my theory on the reason why you wife use the chinese term for Cream to describe frosting. In the old days ( I grow up in Shanghai in the 80’s) cake topping was only made with real cream. There was no sugar free icing, or other fancy frosting stuff that are used today. I don’t remember ever learning a word for frosting, I guess we just name it after the ingredient.

  19. In Beijing we have an outlet of Taiwan’s Barista Coffee. They serve waffles (taste and thickness in between an Eggo and a Belgian waffle) with chocolate or tuna fish as a topping. We only have gotten the chocolate (I don’t eat meat or fish and my son hates canned tuna), but I’ve often wondered why tuna?

  20. The quote about the bread/cake and cake/bread is genius.

    So much better than the pork floss and wieners on bread.

    Funny, I’m at the tail end of a love affair with the 海苔肉松面包 for breakfast at my local “bread” shop.

  21. We are American expats living in SE Asia for the past 8 years and the obsession with corn still really intriques us. Here around the equator the corn is served off the cob and smothered in butter and is sweet like our corn in the US (except it’s a snack not part of the meal- and this extends to boiling hot days at the zoo and every movie theater- the boys were delighted when thier Southern grandmother served it as a side in NC- it was like having cake for lunch!). It seems that Hong Kong is the dividing line- as the corn in Macau was still served this way. We were surprised the corn in Beijing was so bland and was still on the cob. So although corn is popular all over Asia- the type and taste does vary quite a bit by region.

  22. Hi there,

    I love the website you have on shanghai pronounciations. I was wondering if you could create one or let me know how to say “I miss you” in the shanghai dialect? Thanks so much!


  23. Mike Fish Says: August 2, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    I’m from Lakeland, graduated from USF, much of my family now lives up around Gainesville; no I’m not trying to steal your life. I’ve been thinking about the day, in the not too distant future when I’ll take my Chinese in-laws back to FLA. I don’t know about the waffles, but the rest sounds like it could happen… even the mother-in-law on Montu.

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