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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.)
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.