In western culture, the common greeting is "how are you?" but in Chinese culture, "have you eaten yet?" is the common greeting. Today's cooking class and lecture on Chinese culture through the lens of food emphasized the importance of food in China.
Before the food, however, we had our usual four hours of Chinese class at Nanjing University (南大). My class is a four-person, all-girls group, which allows for lots of speaking opportunities. During the first two hours, we discussed our family tree and the new vocabulary for the chapter. In Chinese, there are very specific terms for family members. While I have already learned the various titles twice, I have yet to really "learn" this, as it is quite confusing. The beauty of such a small class, however, is that we all had time to share our family tree and use the vocabulary in a real-life situation. My classmates and I enjoyed this as learning the characters is one thing, but actually knowing how to use the words in conversation is another.
Instead of our usual time with language partners in the afternoon, we traveled to the Nanjing Jinling Secondary Vocational School for our first of two cooking classes. We were greeted by the school's principal, provost, president and top teachers � the school went all out for having Americans at their school. Our first activity was watching a video about the school; we learned there are five majors (auto mechanic, media, cooking, flight stewardess and cosmetology) among the three campuses in Nanjing. We were at the tourism and cooking campus which has 1,500 students. Since the government places an emphasis on the vocational schools, it is fully supported, just like any other public high school. The entrance exam is the same high school test (中考) that Chinese students must take to enter high school. The difference from this vocational school from a normal high school is that a lower score is required for acceptance.
Next, one of the teachers taught us about Chinese food and the four different cuisines that are present in the country. Each geographical area has its specialties and reasoning for the ingredients used. While it was very interesting information, we all were very excited to begin learning to cook. An award-winning teacher demonstrated how to make meat buns and vegetable buns (包子). Her buns looked picture perfect and she set the bar very high. Some of the culinary students, ranging in age from 16-20, helped us make our own buns. It took us awhile to get the correct technique down � make the dough thin enough, place the right amount of vegetables in the middle, and pinch the dough correctly to close the bun � but regardless of how they looked, the buns all tasted delicious.
After the buns, we learned how to make glutinous rice balls (汤圆) filled with red bean paste. The school had already prepared four varieties of dough for us � plain, chocolate, green tea and custard. We had to take the dough, insert the red bean paste, and roll the ball to hide the filling. The balls are boiled, and then eaten. When the students helping me brought the dessert to our table, I was very excited and smiled while eating my first bite. Dong Laoshi captured the moment, pointing out this was the first time I laughed while eating food in China. It's exciting to know that you made something tasty that was freshly boiled, so as to kill most of the germs. I am still getting used to no soap anywhere, including the culinary school kitchen. We all really enjoyed our time, especially because we got to talk with students our own age while making delicious food. As we were leaving, we took many pictures with our new friends, many of whom I am guessing have had limited interaction with foreigners.
Our evening activity was a talk by Professor Wu, a distinguished Muslim scholar who teaches at Nanjing University. He is very controversial as he does not just say what the government wants him to say and he does not believe everything that the majority of Muslims believe. He feels like he is walking his own path, like an animal with wings who doesn't fit in on the land nor in the air. Professor Wu said he looks to the Han government and the Muslims to collaborate and for progress, but neither want to work together to make changes. As a result, he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future. His main focus was on how food is such an integral part of Chinese society, mentioning that many of the words for cooking have distinct meanings when the characters are broken down. Professor Wu also told us where to find the best tasting roast duck, as Nanjing's best food is duck. Over 20 million ducks are consumed every year in Nanjing.
Today was a very busy day with Chinese class, cooking class and a lecture, but it was very informative and allowed us to learn in many different settings. Without our language partners today, we have lots of studying to finish on our own tonight. Good night!
- Jessica G.