How Cultural Differences Turned My Kitchen… Pink!

Being that today is October 1st, and Project World Colors (#worldcolors, #worldcolours) begins Pink (stories, photos, images) this month, I thought I would share one of my favorite cross-cultural misadventures today.

Cultural Understanding:  Houston, Baku and Don Ho?

Houston, Baku and …Don Ho?

This is another birthday story… a fun one involving Houston, Baku, and 1960s Hawai’ian singer, Don Ho. (Wait… What?)

This story is what happens when cultures collide in the land of No-One-Told-Me.

When crossing cultures, life is often like Donald Rumsfeld said in his inimitable style:

    “We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know.
    We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department briefing, Fe. 12, 2002

This is a story about the ‘unknown unknowns,” that is to say… oh nevermind, you get it.

For those of you who read “Happy Birthday! I’m Celebrating, Ex-Pat Style!” from last week, you know that birthdays are special for me and I love to celebrate with something fun. This story is about my 39th birthday when I was yet in Houston, and our Azerbaijani exchange students had just arrived.

By about mid-summer, when I hadn’t heard any of the usual, “What shall we do for your birthday this year?” questions, I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

I brought the subject up tactfully at breakfast one Saturday morning with my then-husband. “Uh, so. I was just thinking. Have you given any thought to what we might do for my birthday yet? It’s only 2-1/2 months away.” (You know I can hear you laughing, right?)

His “deer in the headlights” look pretty much confirmed my hunch. Next stupid question… “Would you like me to take care of it?” Well, let’s see… What guy wouldn’t like to be let off a hook like that one?

As we talked about what would be fun, we settled on a Hawai’ian-style Luau (Of course you saw that coming- why else would someone put Don Ho up there, right?)

Hibiscus, flower of Hawai'i

Hibiscus, flower of Hawai’i

With “only” 2 months to go I set about stringing white lights and nets, arranging hibiscus and generally creating a tropical setting- not too hard in the warm, humid nights of Houston. The preparing is almost as fun as the event, to be honest. I love the lead up, the anticipation of sharing with friends!

Being that our exchange students from Baku had just arrived within the month, I wanted this to be a bit of America that they wouldn’t otherwise get to experience in their year here. They knew that I had lived in Hawai’i when I was growing up so this became a fun family project.

Hawai'ian welcome with Hula Dancers


We tried to put together a pop version of a tropical music playlist (although, of course, we had to include Don Ho).I showed them hula dances complete with the hand gestures, and talked about cultural touchstones that America discovered when Hawai’i became a state.

On her own, our exchange daughter, Gunel, decided to surprise me with a culinary contribution. Knowing Hawai’i is a melting pot created by many cultures, she colluded with my husband to prepare a unique and flavor-compatible dish, one from Azerbaijan but one she thought she could make on her own here in America. He bought the ingredients and she kept them out of sight.

I say “she thought she could make” because the kids had thus far only ever used the microwave. They knew how to steam veggies in corning- or pyrex-ware, never metal, and how to time things that had directions on them. Gunel was an accomplished help to her mother in their Baku (gas) kitchen, but in Houston we had a less intuitive electric stovetop.

The night before the big party, I was so tired that I fell asleep on the couch in the family room, long after everyone else had gone upstairs to bed. Somewhere in the night Gunel crept downstairs, quiet as a mouse, and began her preparations. The family room was open to, but not necessarily in the line of sight of the kitchen on the opposite side of the house, so I didn’t wake up when Gunel started work, and she didn’t see me asleep on the couch.

For the dish she was making, Gunel needed to boil eggs, potatoes and beets to be diced and added to spring onions and so on. She knew it was one of my favorite dishes and was hoping the surprise would be a big one.

We both got a big surprise alright, but not the way she planned.

She began to boil the potatoes and eggs in one dish and the beets in another on top of the stove. However, with all the prep work, she got busy and didn’t see the glass bowls were low on water.

Suddenly, BLAM! the Pyrex dish exploded! It sounded like a shot! Gunel screamed, not understanding what was happening or why. I woke up screaming, running into the kitchen as I tried to focus. Gunel screamed again, being startled when she turned and saw me.

As I assessed the situation, she seemed to be ok- shaken, but not hurt. I got her out of the kitchen and began cleaning up eggs and potatoes that had been blown to smithereens across the ceiling, floors, and counters.

Gunel was so rattled that she forgot to mention the other evaporating time-bomb. Yes, the beets! Also in a Pyrex dish, also on the stovetop, boiling dry as I cleaned up glass and debris everywhere.

Just when I thought I was getting a handle on the chaos, KA-BOOM!! The second dish exploded and sent those soft warm beets smashing into walls, floors and doors as well as streaking like little fireballs across the entire ceiling. Since everything was wet from being wiped down before, we now had extra-juicy beets turning the entire kitchen into beautiful shades of pink… with tiny bubbles.

We laughed, we cried, we hugged each other as we tried to take in the carnage while dodging bits of beets falling from above. It was, um… a memorable moment. A bonding experience.  I then showed her the warning labels on the bottom of the glass bowls- “not for stovetop use”.

The tale of the exploding salat became an unspeakable inside joke. Thereafter, every time we saw beets on any menu or in any store, we would start laughing till we cried all over again.

It was one of those things that you think everyone knows, and so we often overlook.

Sharif, who was ostensibly our neighbor’s exchange student, but in fact spent most of the time at our house,  had a similar learning curve of his own in their kitchen.

My neighbor called me to ask if I could talk to Sharif about leaving their gas stove on after he finished making a hot dog after school. Sometime she would come in and the gas flame was on and nothing was being cooked. He just left it on.

To her, he was being careless. To him, that was how gas worked. … Again, cross-cultural unknown unknowns.

Fortunately that one was easy to resolve since I had stayed in his family home on my first visit after we knew Gunel and Sharif had been selected as exchange students.

I explained to Pam and Steve that in Baku at that time, gas was available only at certain times, so when the ‘gas came’ they lit the pilot and it stayed on until the gas was finished for the day. You didn’t turn it off because someone might turn the knob on and not know if gas was flowing or not- even more of a danger. So they left it on, usually with a tea kettle on the edge so it was always warm but not boiling away.

In Gunel’s case, Baku didn’t use electric cooktops, and I never saw any Pyrex/glassware. (If anyone had had a microwave, it would have been mostly expats.) Azerbaijani women cooked, and when they did it was from scratch- big heavy pans to press a chicken flat with a brick, or large skillets to braise lamb chunks with fruit and chestnuts- that kind of thing. Gunel had seen us use Pyrex in the microwave- where we boiled water in it (or in the oven where we baked casseroles), and made the assumption that it could hold boiling beets, eggs and potatoes too. Nice try, but only in theory.

Hawai'ian Orchid on Lava rock

Hawai’ian Orchid on Lava rock

My Life Lesson from all this? (Besides pink not being a good look for kitchens?)

Had I known she wanted to cook, I would have known to teach her that rule.
Instead, it was just one of life’s cross-cultural unknown unknowns!

So how do you know what someone else doesn’t know? How do you know where the cross-cultural understanding gaps are?

Have you ever been in a situation where people thought you knew something and it turned out you didn’t? How would you have handled this situation?

4 thoughts on “How Cultural Differences Turned My Kitchen… Pink!

    • So glad you enjoyed this story! You’re right about now much we assume about how we do things. .. from using appliances to how important the right bread is at a meal. It’s been a real eye opener! Thanks for the thoughts!


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