Travel Oops: The ‘Tomato Sauce’ Tirade

The source of my ethnocentrism. Tomato sauce. © Amy Frazier

The source of my ethnocentrism. Tomato sauce. © Amy Frazier

Tomato sauce. That’s what made me go epically ethnocentric when I lived in Adelaide, Australia, for one year as an exchange teacher. I didn’t mean for it to happen, especially since, frankly, Oz is awesome, and I started thinking perhaps I was more Aussie than American. Plus, I’ve always tried to embrace various cultures, respect different customs and avoid going down Ethnocentric Avenue. After all, I once ate an entire portion of hideous headcheese in Paris for lord’s sake.

“We Gonna Rock Down to ‘Ethnocentric Avenue’”

Of course, culture shock is completely normal, and it’s to be expected that travelers will, in some way, compare the country they are visiting to their own. The international non-profit organization, Unite for Site, which relies on volunteers to help with global eye care health in remote villages, has a great explanation of culture shock:

No matter how open-minded or accepting, all travelers are susceptible to culture shock;  for their means of interacting effectively with society have been knocked out from under them. Even seasoned travelers are vulnerable to culture shock when traveling to an unfamiliar foreign country. What begins as discomfort and confusion subtly progresses to frustration, anxiety, irritability, loneliness, and withdrawal.

Unite for Site also warns about the dangers of ethnocentrism, which they define as “the unconscious presumption that there is one normal, single way of doing things, and that deviations from this universal order are wrong.”

An American roundabout. They actually make much more sense.

An American roundabout. They actually make much more sense.

The most adjusted travelers, in my opinion, also get ethnocentric about certain aspects of culture — usually over small things. At least that’s what happened in my case — when I had a tantrum over something trivial. It’s definitely a moment I cringe about now.

I actually thought I might lose it over driving through roundabouts, which terrified me every time they appeared in the road. Even my young kids knew this. “My mom hates roundabouts,” Eddie and Kasey would tell their new Australian friends.

While scary, roundabouts, I had to admit, were practical and more efficient than four way stops.

I battled these carts every time I shopped at Coles

I battled these carts every time I shopped at Coles

On the other hand, the poorly designed wheels on the carts/trolleys at Coles, one of Australia’s major grocery store chains, always sent me into a rage. They rotated in never ending 360s, causing absolute loss of cart control. I figured driving on the left hand side of the road wouldn’t be the cause of my dinging someone’s car. It would be those damn carts.

However, ultimately, I cracked over bad, runny tomato sauce that shouldn’t have even been called “tomato sauce” since it was really tomato fluid.

Tomato Sauce vs. Ketchup and unlimited quantities

My husband, Kurt, and I discovered at a Sydney McDonald’s, just days after we arrived Down Under, that Australians call ketchup “tomato sauce.” We also learned that you’re not allowed to have unlimited quantities of it.

Wait, we have to pay for an extra container? Seriously? I have small kids who practically drink ketchup. It’s like a dietary supplement in our eyes. Calm. No need to go crazy about it. This is the way it works in Australia.

Kurt getting sausages ready for some runny ketchup.

Kurt getting sausages ready for some runny ketchup.

Not surprisingly, we encountered tomato sauce at barbecues and restaurants. Friends always made sure we had access to it since they knew about our American allegiance to ketchup. We appreciated their consideration.

However, about three months into our stay, during prime barbecue season, my attitude changed. As I squeezed a bottle of tomato sauce over my hamburger, a runny little squirt dribbled out in trail of tomato tears. I had arrived at the corner of Ethnocentric Avenue and Biased Boulevard. Fortunately, only Kurt witnessed my tomato sauce tirade.

“What the HELL? WHY don’t Australians know how to make ketchup? Come on! This crappy, runny stuff tastes like they just smooshed a vine of tomatoes into a plastic container. They might as well leave the frickin’ seeds in it!” And I went on.

Various mustards in Australia. They did just fine with "American Mustard"

Various mustards in Australia. They did just fine with “American Mustard”

“They can do yellow mustard just fine (interestingly, it’s called “American Mustard”) Why can’t they make thick ketchup?  Why can’t Australia make ketchup like America does? Actually, you know what? I’m glad they call this travesty ‘tomato sauce’ since this is a disgrace to ketchup. (Yikes.)

Petting a koala was a major highlight within the first two weeks of living in Australia.

Petting a koala was a major highlight within the first two weeks of living in Australia.

Kurt let me vent away. He had been dealing with culture shock since we arrived while I adopted every thing Australian. Within the first two days, I had consumed a Vegemite sandwich, meat pie, and a kangaroo burger. Within two weeks, I had surfed, driven on the left side of the road, attended a “barbie” and pet a koala. Meanwhile, Kurt was checking the Colorado ski report online every day since it was winter back home.

The Build Up

My meltdown had been brewing. While I loved Adelaide and living in Australia, teaching there was tougher than I expected. I definitely had to earn respect, and the kids could be brutal. Although I was a seasoned teacher, school left me exhausted and discouraged most days. And a specific debate with my year 8s exacerbated the situation.

Australia's favourite spread.

Australia’s favourite spread.

Usually, when a lesson floundered, which was often, I brought up food. Talking about favorite foods with my students was usually a bonding experience. Sometimes we’d talk about Vegemite and my year 8s would try to convince me that concentrated yeast extract was delicious, and they’d tell me the proper way to eat it. On another occasion, I brought up my love for their Tim Tams, the best cookie or “bickie” in the world. They also introduced me to the powdered drink, Milo, which would become a staple in my family’s Adelaide cupboard.

One day, however, I had a probing question for them.

“So, I’m wondering why you guys call ketchup ‘tomato sauce.’”

“Ah, Miss, you know that it’s made from tomatoes, right? responded Mitchell, the class clown who usually cracked up the entire class.

“Yes, Mitchell. I’m aware of that.” I put my notebook down since I was ready for more on this. “But I don’t understand why you guys call it tomato sauce because it’s actually ketchup.

“But it’s tomato sauce, Miss.”

Authentic American ketchup at Wal-Mart.

Authentic American ketchup at Wal-Mart.

“No. It’s not.” I wrote “KETCHUP” up on the board. “I should know since I’m American and we invented it.” (Actually, I read later that the Chinese created a kind of pickled ketchup in the seventeenth century. However, the tomato-based version is all ours — at least according to Wikipedia.)

“Some people call it ‘ketchup’ here, Miss,” Molly, a considerate, conscientious student in the front row tried to reassure me.”

“That’s good to know, Molly. But really, most Australians call it ‘tomato sauce,’ which is not correct since tomato sauce is what goes on top of spaghetti.”

“No, it doesn’t, Miss,” said Kane, a kid with a mouthful of braces who suddenly was interested in the debate.

“What goes on spaghetti then?” I was trying not to snap at the kids.

“Pasta sauce,” several kids replied.

“Yeah, since it goes on top of pasta,” Mitchell added in a “Duh!” sort of tone.

“Well, you guys know, however, that there are many different types of pasta,” I countered.

Some of my crazy but lovable year 8s  © Stephanie Glaser

Some of my crazy but lovable year 8s
© Stephanie Glaser

“Yes.” Most of the students now were engaged in this discussion.  And I felt that the topic was academically appropriate since we were talking about language classification and terminology.

They waited for me to continue.

“Fettuccine Alfredo comes with a white creamy sauce. Spaghetti, ravioli and cannelloni are served with a red tomato sauce. Consequently, you see that there are different types of pasta sauce.”

The kids just looked at me in that “here goes our crazy teacher again” way.

This goes on spaghetti in Australia. © Amy Frazier

This goes on spaghetti in Australia. © Amy Frazier

“So if you say spaghetti comes with ‘pasta sauce’ that doesn’t specify which type of pasta sauce it is.”

“That’s why you say you want ‘Bolognese sauce’ on your spaghetti.”  Mitchell stated.

I decided then to drop the entire topic. I couldn’t imagine where the discussion would go when we added pesto or olive oil to the mix.

17 thoughts on “Travel Oops: The ‘Tomato Sauce’ Tirade

    • I know and usually, I appreciate the differences and think it’s cool that there are so many different terms for various items — my tantrum was pretty petty and eventually, we did Heinz (which still wasn’t exactly the same) but it did the job. Thanks so much for the comment! 🙂

  1. Fabulous post, Steph! just what I needed on this rainy, cold Spanish morning. I’ve not yet sampled the ketchup here but, I have to say that Indo really came up trumps with theirs. It was thick and tomatoey and ok, not as good as Heinz but it wasn’t bad at all. I’m not a huge fan of vegemite but I love Marmite so that would be the thing that I missed! 😉

    • Lottie!! So glad to hear you are in Spain. If I recall, the sauces in Spain are fantastic. Good to know that you had a nice version of ketchup in Jakarta.

      I never tried Marmite, but heard from some of my British friends in Oz that it’s way better than Vegemite. I actually developed an appreciation for Vegemite. Can you get Marmite in Spain?

      It’s so funny how homesickness manifests in strange ways. I never thought I would have a throw down tantrum about ketchup. Thankfully, Kurt is the only one who saw my sookie state of mind over tomato sauce. My students usually thought I was crazy anyway.

      Can’t wait to hear more about Spain! xxxxxxx

  2. I guess it is one of those things, it is a sauce, you make it with tomatoes and put it on top of food, the same way you do with a lot of other sauces. Makes perfect sense to us, 🙂
    I don’t get where ketchup comes from, the strangest name for a sauce I have ever heard.

    • You are right on, Leanne — it makes sense, and that is what makes my “tantie” (sp?) all the more ridiculous. I actually wasn’t homesick while I was in Australia since, again, I loved it there so much, but all the frustration from school manifested in this bizarre “we make way better ketchup than you guys!” moment. My students were always correcting me on culture, and I was beginning to feel like such an incompetent idiot, so this seemed to be my rather pathetic way of “one-upping” them. Just when you think you aren’t experiencing culture shock, it creeps up on you! Thanks for the comment 🙂

      Oh, and “ketchup” is a variation of the original Mandarin word “kê-chiap” for the pickled sauce that eventually evolved into ketchup.

  3. Tomato sauce (the Aussie/Kiwi stuff, not the pasta stuff) and ketchup are actually totally different things!!! I can, however, appreciate how disappointing if can be when you’re expecting one and get the other instead 🙂 I would KILL for some proper tomato sauce right now…

    • Whoa….that explains heaps! It makes my “tantie” seem even more lame. I didn’t realize that the sauces were actually different although the Down Under version of Heinz was pretty good — especially compared to the tomato sauce. You guys must be experiencing a massive array of sauces in Hong Kong, but yeah, it always seems that there is one item from home that could make life all the better.

      Thanks for the comment and the clarification!

      • Hehe we all go through those moments when travelling, like you say 🙂 Tomato sauce/ketchup was just the straw that broke that particular camel’s back, eh?! Mmm I really want a pie with tomato sauce.

  4. The only contribution that Heintz has made is to steal the idea of putting the label on up side down to make sure the sauce will flow. Love your blog.

    Ed Schuck

  5. Hahaha!
    I once had an interesting conversation with my American cousin when we used the word ‘thongs’ in different contexts – we didn’t realise until MUCH later.

    • I’m glad I knew there was a difference with “thongs” so I didn’t freak out when my Aussie students said they’d be wearing their thongs on “casual day” at school. Love the differences in language. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Amy!

  6. I loved this article Steph…I think I can imagine how that feels to use the trollies in Coles as I feel the similar way…and may be I might have to see the diff in catchup you found as I havn’t used it any where else so far….this is a very practical post I would say dear

    • Hi Chris! Fortunately, I knew the different interpretations of “Fanny” since an American told me not to say, “Fanny Pack” in Oz.

      It was bad enough when I told my students that I had to refrain from saying “root” when I barracked for Port Adelaide. I decided to stay away from “fanny” especially after I lectured a kid about being to young to have sex (although I was glad he wanted to keep it safe) when he asked me if I had a “rubber.”

      Thanks for reading and the comment! Cheers 🙂

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