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Chinese Palate

OUR Chinese friends do not like ginger ale. The first and only time we served it to them they thought we were joking - nobody would drink something concocted of a spice used only for cooking. Their attitude surprised us, for they seemed so Westernized, sitting in our living room in leather jackets, good Communists chatting excitedly about money and profits and capitalism. They nibbled on crackers with peanut butter and proudly flashed photographs of their children enjoying a paddleboat ride. It seemed like any ordinary evening shared with American friends.

It was only when they mentioned that their monthly rent is $2.75 - yes, $2.75 - that we were reminded our guests had just arrived from the other side of the world. Beijing, to be exact.

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As their mouths became dry from talk and peanut butter, our friends decided to try the ginger ale we offered. They sniffed it for the familiar scent of ginger and were baffled by its absence. After a few tentative sips, they wrinkled their noses in good-natured but obvious dislike.

Such discoveries about taste differences between our cultures have been the source of much merriment. As lovers of the Chinese food available in our country, we often forget that authentic Chinese cuisine is vastly different from anything to which we are accustomed. And just as there are many Chinese delicacies that don't particularly excite us, we've discovered that many of our American favorites don't tickle the Chinese palate, either.

Take the all-American tossed salad, for instance. To think anyone would eat raw vegetables! The Chinese certainly do not. So imagine the reaction of a middle-aged Chinese woman biting into her first raw cherry tomato with its pulpy juice exploding in her mouth. An overwhelming experience to say the least.

Chinese do not eat dairy products. Period. Not knowing this, our first dinner party for a newly arrived Chinese was quite interesting. We chose foods that would reflect an ordinary dinner eaten by an average American family. We started with cheese and crackers. Oops, dairy. Next came tossed salad with, you guessed it, cherry tomatoes and a choice of dairy-based dressings. Super. Then, we had steaks and baked potatoes with sour cream. Of course!

When the next poor, unsuspecting Chinese visitors braved a dinner at our house, we tried Southern-fried chicken, whipped potatoes, and baked beans. The beans were a tremendous success. They also liked the potatoes. But the chicken ... well, the chicken was another story.

They seemed to like its flavor, but the concept of eating a whole piece of meat was strange to them. They prefer it bite-size, mixed with at least one vegetable, and in a sauce of some kind.

Our efforts at entertaining have not been completely unsuccessful, however. We've discovered that our Chinese friends adore peanut butter. They like it by itself and could probably devour jars of it by the spoonful.

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One woman liked it so well that she began calling anything of a similar creamy consistency ``butter.'' It was quite a challenge explaining why whipped potatoes could not be called ``potato butter.''

Regardless of the language and taste differences we've encountered, we've had fun introducing our friends to a few of the American basics - not elaborate gourmet delicacies, just simple regulars - and discovering how the everyday elements of life in China compare to ours here in the United States. Not surprisingly, the differences are as insignificant as ginger ale.

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