UNH students and faculty say it with food in China

Friday, October 23, 2015

On a round wooden table that fills most of the room, a large lazy susan turns slowly, with dishes of eggplant, fish and watermelon floating by, and bowls of obscure meats and vegetables. “Lotus root,” says Ian MacKay '16, helpfully naming the contents of one bowl. From another, he deftly picks out a long vegetable with his chop sticks, eats it and says instructively, “And that is ‘strange-tasting bean.’”

UNH students eating lunch in China
L to R (seated): Jennifer McCall '16, an English teaching major from Epsom, N.H.; Doug Cusack '16, a business administration major from Mansfield, Mass.; Wes Hutton '17, a linguistics and international affairs major from Madbury, N.H.; Chris DiPersio '14, a linguistics and German major from Windham, N.H.; Ian MacKay '16, a German and international affairs major from Francestown, N.H.

Ian is one of five UNH students on a study abroad program in Chengdu, China, who are sharing lunch with a group of five UNH faculty and administrators visiting Chengdu University. Though the two groups have never met before, they are breaking the ice over a Sichuan-hot Chinese banquet. As is the custom for such meals in China, a procession of dishes is brought out by quietly efficient waitstaff who fill the carousel to capacity. The effect is impressive abundance.

Ian and the other students — Jenn McCall '16, Doug Cusack '16, Wes Hutton '17 and Chris DiPersio '14, who is teaching English in China rather than taking courses — seem well-adjusted to Chinese culture, relishing the unusual fare before them. As they eat, they chatter about their experience in China.

“There was no culture shock when I got here,” says Ian.

Wes agrees: “I expected to be intimidated but it never happened.”

“I think I’ll have culture shock when I go home,” says Jenn.

“Right,” says Doug, “it will be like, ‘why isn’t everyone looking at me?’”

And they all laugh. They’ve spent weeks being stared at and photographed by Chinese not used to Westerners. It’s a celebrity they can get used to.

The lunch group, left to right: Susan Dumais, college communications coordinator; Alasdair Drysdale, associate dean and professor of geography; Kevin Sousa, college academic affairs coordinator; Jenni Cook, associate professor of music; Jennifer McCall '16; Ian MacKay '16; Doug Cusack '16; Wes Hutton '17; Chris DiPersio '14; and Yige Wang, co-director of the Confucius Institute at UNH.

Five mornings a week, the students study Chinese speaking, comprehension, writing and listening. They’ve learned the importance of tone from the confused looks of the Chinese they are trying to talk to. They’ve learned the value of charades when all else fails. In Chengdu, unlike the capital, Beijing, they can’t fall back on their English and expect the locals to understand.

Chinese street food
Street food behind Chengdu University 

On their own, or with their assigned Chinese “buddies” who help them navigate the city, the students spend their free time exploring international supermarkets, relaxing in one of the many incense-filled Buddhist monasteries or just walking around, taking in the sites. They say they feel safe no matter where they are or how late they are out, except for taxi rides.

“I’m convinced the taxi drivers are borderline suicidal and they are taking you down with them,” says Ian.

The UNH faculty and administrators are clearly impressed with the group. While the conversation is light and funny, the students have taken on a weighty experience — traveling across the world to live in a completely foreign culture. They’re preparing for careers in international affairs and business, foreign language and English language teaching. They’re ambitious and plucky.

In just a few weeks, the students will wrap up their studies with a trip to the famous Terracotta Army in Xian and then on to Beijing for a few days of tourism before returning West. They say they’ll miss China, especially the food on “snack street,” a boulevard behind the university where unending stalls of skewered meats, noodles, vegetables and fruits are on offer. A huge dinner can be had for the equivalent of just a couple of U.S. dollars.

“I ate pig brain,” says Wes.

“The chicken stomach was surprisingly good,” adds Jenn.

“Food is never what it appears to be,” says Ian.

As the lazy susan comes to a halt, with mounds of food left uneaten by a sated group, these adventuresome students freely admit to — maybe not homesickness — but a craving for certain ingredients of home: TV, high-speed internet … and food.

“I crave Western food all the time,” says Ian. Jenn says, dreamily, “Eating eggs with tomato here is the best because it reminds me of home.”

In the meantime, one of the administrators has bitten into a Sichuan hot peppercorn and is desperately trying to cool her numbed tongue in a glass of yogurt.

The study abroad experience is a lot like eating lunch in China: You try new things and find wonderment, sometimes discomfort and always a renewed appreciation for home. These UNH students wouldn’t trade that experience for anything — not even a slice of American cheese.

Originally published by: The College Letter, the newsletter of the UNH College of Liberal Arts