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How do I respectfully turn down food offered to me when it’s totally disgusting?
Short answer? You don’t.
Why? To put it simply, in almost every culture, food is a big deal. I mean a really big deal.
In a land of microwave meals and fast foods, it’s easy to forget how central cooking and eating is to almost every other human society. Most people I meet traveling are flabbergasted when I tell them that there are people in my hometown who don’t know how to cook. Some of them don’t believe me.
Food is kind of a big deal.
And yes, there are ways to be polite, but why would you want to be? Every interaction with your hosts is an opportunity. Just as you are learning about them, they are learning about you. Everything you do teaches them about who you are and where you are from.
So when they offer you goat brains or chicken feet, you have two choices: show them how polite you can be, or show them how humble you can be. A polite refusal tells them “That’s very kind of you, but I know better than you – I don’t want that.” But when we try the food, we’re saying “You know better than I – I trust your judgment.”
Another way of putting it is empathy. The simple truth is this: they are humans, they eat this, they survive. We’re human too, if we eat this, we’ll survive. Every time we share food with our hosts we share an identity with our hosts. Conversely, every time we reject their food (no matter how politely), we reject a shared identity.
For all you picky eaters out there, do not despair! Barry wrote about the difficulty of embracing culinary empathy as a picky eater in our August issue. Good news is, by saying “yes” to new foods, he has discovered a whole new way to relate and connect to his hosts. Bad news is, sometimes the path to relationship is paved with duck embryos and spider legs.
Personally, when I’m faced with a food I find particularly hard to swallow, I simply remember past trips. On more than half of my foreign journeys, at some point in the visit, one of my hosts will pull me aside and say something like this:
“You [World Next Door] people are different. You listen to us. You don’t ask for special treatment. You eat our food.”
And when I remember the surprise and shock and delight they found in an American that embraced whatever was set before them, I no longer want to be polite.
I want to be humble. I want to be empathetic.
I want to be their friend.
That’s why we don’t say no. Why be polite when you can be friends?
How do you adjust to a new culture every few months?
Well, it’s not always easy. In the last 12 months I’ve been to Ukraine, Cambodia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya, Guatemala, and Haiti. It’s enough to give someone a pretty severe case of cultural whiplash!
I do my best to switch gears effectively, but every now and then an odd cultural practice or saying slips out. I have to fight the urge to hand cashiers my debit card with two hands like they do in Southeast Asia. I have to be careful not to thank the grocery store bagger in Swahili. I have just plain given up trying not to say “Sorry!” whenever someone stubs their toe or drops something (the way they do in Kenya).
Overall, I think it’s important to simply get used to being a little weird. After traveling the world and being immersed in multiple rich and diverse cultures, it’s hard not to come away permanently changed. Try as I might, I will never look at the world the same way my friends and neighbors do. And so I live with the reality that I am now an “other.”
I guess it’s not so much a matter of adjusting to a new culture every few months as it is adjusting to this new trans-cultural identity. It may be exhausting flipping from one culture to the next, but I love what it’s teaching me about the world.