I recognized it the first time I saw it, and would drool every time I saw them at the vendor by my house. Fried bananas. There is nothing better than a fried banana with sweet and condensed milk. The bananas are small enough here that you could fry them whole if you want, so every time I pass this stall, I see these whole bananas covered in a beautiful golden crispy coating. I am attempting to save my money, so I put off buying this dessert for the longest time, but tonight I could not resist! I even turned my bike around after riding past them, JUST so that I could have my beautiful and delicious, sweet fried bananas.
“Gluay Thoot, chai mai?” I ask (“Fried bananas, right?”). “yes” the man answers. I give a big smile and ask for one bag, containing 4 whole bananas, each on a skewer. I pay the man and he pulls out 3 bottles, each a different condiment I might add to my snack. Two of the bottles contain dark substances (maybe chocolate and strawberry?), but I see a bottle that I assume has sweet and condensed milk and pour it over the bananas. The texture seems different than sweet and condensed milk, maybe a white glaze? I shrug it off and ride home quickly.
I show Angie, my housemate, what I just bought. I am thrilled, but she looks confused.
“Is that mayonnaise you put on your fried bananas?”
“Then what is it?”
“Um…I don’t know. I think it’s a sweet sauce.”
I lick a bit of the sauce. Definitely not sweet. Angie’s right. It’s mayonnaise.
I’m grumbling now, “Why on earth do Thai people eat mayonnaise with their bananas?!”
But in the spirit of trying new things (who knows? Maybe mayonnaise on bananas actually tastes really good?), I take a bite out of my special fried bananas with mayonnaise. I chew once and, looking again at what I have just eaten, realize that these fried bananas, with sweet and condensed milk…these little crispy, skewers of joy that I have been drooling over for weeks!…are actually giant chicken nuggets with mayonnaise.
To make a sad story a little brighter, after the initial disappointment, I did find comfort in recognizing these chicken nuggets actually taste pretty good… but only if I know it’s chicken and don’t expect banana. And, next time, I’m getting ketchup, not mayonnaise!
And that, my friends, is what experiencing a new culture can be like. When we first moved to the States from Thailand, I expected American people to be really open and friendly, smiling, and having conversations in the middle of the grocery store… kind of like they do in Anne of Green Gables or Shirley Temple movies. I expected something sweet. There are some places in America that are like this, but not the place we moved to. Where we moved, people don’t just say hi to you on the street. And I learned first-hand as an 8 year old, that when you wave to a stranger, they’re more likely to growl than wave back.
America was a different flavor than I expected, and it was a bit of a disappointment. BUT…once I realized that I shouldn’t expect the sweet flavor, I began to see the beauty in the flavor that this new home DID have. It might not be easy to be friendly with strangers, but the level of depth that comes from close friendships is beautiful. There wasn’t as much flattery and kindness as I expected, but that’s because, many times, the people in my area prefer to be blatantly honest (more like ketchup or hot sauce, not sweet and condensed milk). If they’re angry, they say so. If the chicken tastes bad, they say so. If they’re having a bad day for no reason at all, they say so! They express their opinions openly, at least most of the time.
It’s not a perfect society. There are still people who are only interested in shallow relationships…people who prefer the sweet flavor to the savory taste of my town. But once you get used to that savory taste, you grow accustomed to the flavor and appreciate it for what it is…even if it isn’t the sweetness you expected.
Imagine what advantages TCKs must have. After visiting so many cultures with so many different flavors of people, they grow accustomed to each of those flavors. They learn that, sometimes, you just need to enter a new culture with zero expectation of what it is going to be like. That way, the first taste of that place will be not be as much of a disappointment (like getting chicken nuggets instead of fried bananas). And having experienced so many different cultures, they acquire a taste for each of those flavors!
Gosh, I love talking about food 🙂