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Milk with Cereal or Cereal with Milk?

One morning, while delivering a summer school assembly, I asked the students (mostly Spanish, Italian and Russian) what they had eaten for breakfast. A few teenagers said "toast", a few said "fruit", and a few said "nothing". The majority reported that their breakfast had been 'milk with cereal'. I asked them whether they had meant to say, ‘cereal with milk’ and the resounding answer was "no". They said that it was definitely ‘milk with cereal’ because they put the milk in first and then add the cereal. This seemed logical but I asked the team of English teachers behind me what they thought and they reported that ‘cereal with milk’ was correct for them.

Isn't it the same thing? Does the word order matter? Well, it mattered to those I asked!

I posed the same question to a group of Thai students and neither milk nor cereals featured. Rice was popular, as were noodles and I was offered some shrimp crackers for a breakfast 'on the go'.

I'm always happy to try new things and, as the phrase goes "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". However, my nephews (ages 9 and 5) thought that rice for breakfast was highly unusual and assured me that cereal with milk was ‘normal’. As long as they had double portions, they were happy. Oh, and they told me that cereal is their favourite bedtime snack too. There's nothing strange about that, right?

So, why do English kids have cereal with milk, Spanish kids have milk with cereal, and Thai kids have rice? The simple answer is that it’s 'usual' for them.

I have carried out other similar surveys and found all kinds of differences in everyday 'norms' that are simply not questioned. Naturally, we do things because our parents do them and the people around us do them, so we just accept them as 'normal'.

I was surprised to hear that South Koreans take off their shoes not only in the home, but often in restaurants too; in Poland, your name day is more significant than your birthday; and when I lived in Vietnam, I learnt the hard way that the crossed fingers gesture does not mean ‘good luck’, but it is actually rather rude.

Meanwhile in the UK, wearing shoes in the house is normal, we have separate hot and cold taps on our sinks, and we have carpet in our houses, and sometimes even in the bathroom! Plus, we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December instead of the 24th. These are just some of the things that my students have told me they find unusual about the UK.

On the subject of food... We have been known to put all kinds of bottled sauces on our dinners; we eat beans on toast but strictly with tinned baked beans; and we typically drink tea with milk. Also, try explaining that Yorkshire pudding isn’t a pudding, that roast dinners have gravy, and 'toad-in-the-hole' is not what you might think.

One of the reasons I love teaching students from all over the world is that I get to learn about different cultures. What is strange to me is normal to someone else but, of course, this works both ways. It's fascinating!

What do you do that's normal for you but might be strange to someone else?


Have you taken part in one of my courses recently? I'd love to have your feedback.


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