Why I ate a broom, and other cross cultural missteps

Posted on January 31, 2009. Filed under: cross cultural miscommunication, cuisine | Tags: , , , , |

Normally, people don’t publicize the dumb things they have done. But, if you know anything about Jewish humor,  you know that self-deprecation is perfectly OK if it is followed by a great punch line.

As I’ve mentioned many times, people try to understand new cultures by processing their experiences based on their own cultural frameworks–how is this like or not like my own culture. Usually, I’m pretty aware when this is happening, but sometimes I just get caught off guard, and forget that I’m using my own culture as a reference.

I was in Dominican Republic with my husband, who is Dominican, and we had stopped at a local supermarket to pick up some groceries. As I wandered through the produce section, admiring all the exotic fruits and vegetables, I saw a bundle of what looked like thin strips of bark. This must be some kind of spice, I thought, like cinnamon bark or sassafras. Right? I mean, it was in the produce aisle. I picked up the bundle and gave it a sniff. Funny, I thought. it doesn’t have any aroma.

Being a total foodie, I simply had to find out what this unknown and exotic Dominican spice was–so I broke off a small piece and popped it in my mouth. I looked up, only to find a group of teenage girls watching me and giggling uncontrollably. I was used to the “check out the gringa” stare, so I didn’t think anything about it. My husband, at this point,  came down the aisle looking at me  (with that look he gets!) and shaking his head. “Why,” he asked, “are you eating a broom?”

Why was I eating a broom?

  • Because it was in the produce aisle, and not in the cleaning supply aisle (like in America)
  • Because brooms bristles are made of polyester or plastic, not bark (like in America)
  • Because brooms have handles (like in America)
  • Because it didn’t look like a broom! (like in America)

All of my reasons were based on my cultural knowledge of both brooms and spices. It was at that point my husband explained to me that in his country the bottom part of a broom is replaceable (unlike in America) and you can just put it on the broom handle you have at home.

No wonder it didn’t taste very good.

Have you ever made a silly mistake because you were using your own cultural references in another country? What happened?

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5 Responses to “Why I ate a broom, and other cross cultural missteps”

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In Guangzhou, we ordered water beetles stir fried in soy. I popped the two inch long water beetle in my mouth, chewed vigorously and swallowed. Then our local representative “Bruce” came to our table and showed us how to eat them, by spreading the wings and biting off the abdomen. I laughed, and my wife pointed in horror at my teeth, where a leg was stuck. The kicker was when I discovered that “water beetle” is a euphemism for “cockroach”. Yummy.

It’s so easy to assume we don’t need translations when we “all speak English” … one of my early culture-blunder memories occurred in a British Fish and Chip shop shortly after I moved to York, England. Two of my mates and I ordered traditional F&C (wrapped in newspaper, served with vinegar) and another ordered Scallops and Chips. She got a strange look in the shop, but a surprise when we got home! The scallops were scalloped potatoes and thus … spuds and spuds.

We learned to order packets of tomato ketchup, and never had those scallops again. I wish I had a good “chippie” around sometimes!

I just had a flashback to food-related confusion I had when I moved all of 40 miles from Boston, MA, to Manchester, NH. Manchester was a booming milltown and still has the Franco-American population to show for it. They call Shepherd’s Pie “Chinese Pie” and nobody could explain why. I did some homework and discovered it came from “Paté Chinois” and that made perfect sense. The recipes varied from family to family, but the roots in agrarian cuisine were the same: use up leftovers and make something yummy!

I remember I attended a business dinner with a VIP of my company who was coming from The US (this meeting took place in Mexico City). While enojying our food, she looked at the waiter and started yelling “burro, burro!”. She was feeling very proud of her limited Spanish, what she didn’t realized was that she was mixing Spanish with Italian. Burro in Italian means buteer, while burro in Spanish means donkey. We laughed so much (with her of course).

I was in Ecuador practicing my “Spanglish” when I asked the tour guide how much a “guacamole” cost as I held up an avocado.


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