Yan Yan likes to take pictures of herself. She’s in her thirties and puts selfies on her WeChat at a rate that likely exceeds most teenaged girls. Not that this is a bad thing. Enjoying one’s own image is a trait I find commendable. It takes an enviable degree of confidence, I think, for one to want to see themselves that often.
For a period of about five months, I took Chinese lessons from Yan Yan. Her English was decent and her rates were low, so she was an ideal teacher for me. Yan Yan’s lessons were fun and were mostly conversational; she’d just start talking to me in Chinese and I’d do my best to respond. Usually our conversations were about food and where I was going (which was often the grocery store, to get food). A friend of mine took the lessons with me, and that made it better. If you’re going to butcher a language, it’s nice to have a little company to butcher it with.
But one day, in one of our lessons with Yan Yan, something happened that will forever stick with me. We were talking about the grocery store (yet again), and my friend was trying to articulate himself.
“I’d like to buy,” he said, in Chinese, “eggs and milk and…”
“And what?” Yan Yan asked.
“Oh, I don’t know the word,” he said, in English. “How do you say mustard?”
She furrowed her brow. “What is that?”
“You know. It’s the yellow stuff you put on hot dogs.”
“Ah, yes, mayonnaise.”
“No, no, no. Not mayonnaise. Mustard. The yellow stuff.”
“I think it is the same as mayonnaise. No?”
For some reason, I thought I’d jump in and try to help.
“Mayonnaise is white,” I said. “Mustard is yellow. It comes from, like, mustard seeds. I think.”
She was baffled. Eventually we got on our phones and searched for mustard. Finding pictures of bottles of French’s Mustard, we showed them to Yan Yan, assuming this would clear everything up.
“I don’t know what is that,” she said. Her face told us she was telling the truth. She had really never, in her life, heard of mustard before. It was a totally alien item to her.
“You’ve never had mustard?” I asked.
“It is like wasabi?”
“It’s nothing like wasabi,” my friend said.
Yan Yan stared at the mustard the way I might stare at ancient hieroglyphics. She just couldn’t comprehend what she was looking at. We put our phones away and moved on. We figured that going forward, we’d just have to give up on buying mustard.
This incident has stuck with me. I understand that we are all of different cultures, and yet…how does someone not know what mustard is? Part of me thinks that this is probably common. Most of us probably don’t know the condiments typically used in other countries. Take India, for example. I have no idea what condiments are used in India. I don’t even know if they use condiments in India. So not knowing mustard, then, isn’t so strange.
Still, though, it’s mustard. I can’t help thinking of those stories where English people go into isolated, tribal societies in the jungle and the jungle people freak out because they’ve never seen blonde hair before. That’s what I imagine happening in China with mustard. I keep picturing a Chinese person going nuts over a jar of Gray Poupon and then running around Beijing, spreading word of the ‘wild yellow mayonnaise.’
When you’re living abroad, you grow to accept that the people of your new country are going to have a different frame of reference than you do. Your pop culture references will not be understood, and your fond remembrances of Taco Bell and Hot Pockets will fall on deaf ears. But then, sometimes, something comes up, and it strikes you, like a ton of mayonnaise, just how big the gap is, how enormously different your worlds are. And you stand there and you wonder how the heck that’s possible.
I guess I’ll just have to be content in telling myself that one day, mustard will be a common item in China. And on that day, we can start talking about Miracle Whip.