Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is certainly the most popular and most celebrated holiday in Chinese culture. Although the people of China celebrate the new year turning on January 1st with the rest of the world (since 1912), they also celebrate the new year in accords of the Chinese lunar calendar. Chinese New Year is a time to honor households, ancestors, and heavenly deities as well as feast with family. Now more commonly called the Spring Festival, the holiday starts on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month. The festival lasts for 23 days and ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

Traditionally, many acts were carried out during the Chinese New Year to bring good luck and longevity. Households cleaned to appease gods, sacrifices were offered to ancestors, firecrackers were used to ward off evil spirits, and lucky messages were posted around the home. Most importantly, there was plenty of feasting. Classic dishes included fish, noodles, and dumplings were also eaten as they symbolized abundance, longevity, and unity. Growing up in a Chinese household, I have been able to experience the some of these symbolic traditions. I’ve enjoyed many delicious feasts, seen tradition Chinese dragon dances, and have enjoyed the tradition of receiving money from elders (“hongbao”).

Since 1996, Chinese citizens have enjoyed a weeklong vacation during the holiday allowing them to travel home and celebrate the new year. However, this has caused many people of younger generations to appreciate the holiday more so as a break from work and time to relax rather than a family celebration. There are now also many televised Spring Festival Gala’s (annual variety shows featuring traditional and contemporary singers, dancers and magic demonstrations) which many people, including my parents, enjoy to watch each year.

The Summer Palace

During our first weekend in Beijing, we decided to explore one of Beijing’s most famous tourist destinations: The Summer Palace (颐和园). The Summer Palace is in the northwest corner of Beijing which is very close to Peking University. The Summer Palace includes a very large piece of land which include hills, lakes, and many different buildings. The origins of the palace date back to the pre-Qing dynasty. The buildings in the hills of the park were built for various reasons throughout the years, and many different Chinese leaders lived at the Palace. The Palace has a rich history which includes destruction, looting, and rebuilding.

Thousands of people visit the park every day since it was converted into a tourist destination. From the top of the hills, you can get an incredible view of Beijing. You can see the modern buildings and construction surrounding ancient pagodas. At the bottom of the hills, there is a vast lake called Kunming lake, where you can rent boats and explore the park from the water.

Our trip to the Summer Palace was one of my favorite things thus far because of how beautiful the architecture and views were. Also, it was humbling to be in such a historical place of one of the world’s most historical cities.

Beijing Roast Duck: The Epitome of Cultural Dining

One of the precious aspects of the Notre Dame in Beijing Summer Language Intensive Program (NDiB) is the opportunity to partake in a Chinese language table with students and professors. Every Friday, the students are rewarded for a hard week’s worth of studying and are taken to Beijing’s most popular restaurants.

The first Friday (June 23rd), we were taken to a restaurant known for its perfection of Beijing Roast Duck. To understand the “craze” for Beijing’s famous specialty, one first has to know it’s history. “北京烤鸭” has a royal lineage beginning in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) in which the dish was only served to imperial courts. Notable mentions of the dish can be seen in classical literature and poetry. The lengthy preparation of the dish begins from raising the duck for exactly 65 days. After, air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the fat and then coated with maltose syrup (yumm) to make the skin nice and crispy. The last step consists of the actual roasting. Although there are two different methods; a traditional closed oven, or a “hung oven technique”, in which the duck is hung on the oven’s ceiling and roasts over burning wood.

Finally, thin crisps of tender, roasted duck and its skin is served. It is customary to wrap the duck in a thin crepe, accompanied by thin slices of cucumber, spring onions, and sweet bean sauce. Such a glorious experience. Peking duck is a timeless dish and will continue to impact the experience of both locals and foreigners alike.

Safe to say, the highlight of my experience thus far in Beijing has been the culinary aspect. As a self-proclaimed “foodie” my taste buds (and stomach!) are ready for anything, even fried scorpion! Part of cultural immersion hinges on venturing past culinary comfort and I think I am on the right track to fulfilling this aspect. Join me next time for more Beijing insights and FOOD!


Anna Fett Blog 2: Hummus for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Many Americans are familiar with Israeli ‘Sabra’ hummus–a brand almost ubiquitous with hummus as we know it in the states. Hummus is one of the staples of the Israeli diet, but of course, it has been consumed for generations throughout the Middle East. It is hard to capture how much better the hummus here is than what is available back home. The major difference is that hummus in Israel and the Palestinian territories is made fresh, daily and is preservative-free. Thus, it must be eaten on the first serving, and it does not store well for more than a few hours (explaining why I am ‘forced’ to lick my plate clean at each meal).

Traditional plate of hummus and falafel served with local mint lemonade in the Old City of Jerusalem

Hummus can be prepared a variety of different ways from country to country and even from town to neighborhood. Hummus is made from cooked, mashed chickpeas and blended with some combination of lemon juice, salt, garlic, olive oil, and tahini (a condiment made from sesame seeds). The ratio of ingredients differs slightly (or dramatically) from place to place as does how thickly the hummus is blended. For me, the thicker the better. My favorite traditional hummus, which I have tasted so far, I have found in Nablus, a city in the West Bank which Israelis refer to as the land of Samaria. This Palestinian hummus is very thick and served with a generous amount of locally made olive oil–so good that I had to purchase a bottle to go!

22 salads (the largest one is hummus) served with pita bread, falafel, and fried cauliflower in the port city of Jaffa

Just as the taste and texture of hummus changes from place to place so does the pita bread served with it. In the Mediterranean port city of Jaffa, thin small round slices of pita are served with hummus, along side 21 other side ‘salads’. All are served on small plates. They include plates of tahini sauce, pickled vegetables, yogurts both spicy and sweet, and many others. In a Druze neighborhood (a unique religious and ethnic minority) of the Golan Heights, I have eaten traditional hummus with ginormous pieces of thick doughy pita large enough for one to feed multiple people.

For breakfast each morning, I am served a traditional breakfast of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, pita bread, Greek yogurt and hummus (it’s a bit soupier than I prefer but hey-it’s still fresh hummus!) For many a lunch and dinner, I order some combination of hummus and falafel with a lamb kebab or chicken schwarma (meat placed on a spit and grilled all day long). I also order my hummus with falafel whenever I can find it. Falafel is a deep-fried ball of ground chickpeas and/or fava beans and usually drizzled with tahini sauce or lemon juice. All of these tastes compliment each other of course. Falafel can be served as small doughnut balls or as large patties.

A modern twist on falafel and hummus including: cheese and fried onion falafel and a pink sweet pomegranate hummus!

It is easy to find simple traditional versions of hummus and falafel across this country and the greater region. Yet there are those in modern cities willing to experiment with a few twists as well. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, I was lucky enough to try a sweet pink pomegranate hummus with three kinds of falafel including one stuffed with cheese and another with fried onions, all served with a light crispy version of pita.

This diversity of ways to prepare hummus delectably demonstrates the diversity of cultures of this region and the importance of both maintaining traditional cuisines while also honoring them through experimentation that exists across Israel and Palestine.

Points de Vue (Troisième Post)

After another week in Tours, I have noticed further improvements in my vocabulary, fluidity of speech, and utilisation of more advanced concepts. At the same time, however, the difficulties of learning a language have been reinforced. For exemple, this past Wednesday, I went to the outdoor farmers’ market which is held outside of the indoor market named Les Halles which I mention in other posts, and when I went to purchase  raspberries, the man at the stall asked me English, “which one do you want?” Something similar happened to me a few days later at a café. While it is likely that he was just trying to assist someone learning the language, such events do from time to time make me second guess my confidence and ability to speak French, this experience demonstrated an occasional dilemma of learning French. Despite this , the weekend I spent in the country side, near Chinon, was incredible helpful for my acquisition of vocabulary and provided a truly immersive and demanding language experience. My host parents’ children, Antoinette and Matthieu, came to the family’s house in the country side for a weekend as well. Nonetheless, the weekend provided a chance to stop and reflect on words and phrases which I would have otherwise been forced to forego in a typical daily interaction. (I was also able to help Matthieu with his English.)

In Tours, I took time this week to explore some areas which I previously had not been to. Such adventures were rewarding because they allowed me to see the “Hôtel de Ville,” a small but not the less beautiful church, and two separate public parcs where locals go to read, chat, or simply enjoy the beautiful spaces which their city provides for them.

On another note, considering the current political climate in the United States, it was not long before my host family, professors at the institute, and my friends from other countries whom I have met asked me my opinion of the US government. Of course, these conversations were useful for me because I was able to turn the questions around in order to learn more about foreign perceptions of the United States.

Talking to my host family about politics is consistently interesting because France itself is in a unique place politically. Emmanuel Macron, the month-old president of the republic, took French politics by storm by avoiding the traditional left and right in order to find himself president. As my host family has expressed to me, however, it is difficult to truly know what Macron will do because he is part of neither the traditional left or right, a sentiment which has been echoed by them concerning President Trump. Aside from politics, a lot of conversation at dinner has concerned the differences in education and the french workplace. My host family admires the economic system in the United States because, although it is more demanding, it permits for greater mobility which does not exist in France and has been the cause of high unemployment since the financial crisis of 2008. In terms of education, the great competition the exists for entrance into the so-called “grandes-écoles” is something I never appreciated. French students sometimes undergo two years of preparation just to prepare themselves for entrance exams. Interestingly enough, my host family travelled to the United States in 2000 with their children in order to  visit relatives, one of whom was actually a French instructor at Notre Dame. On a cultural level, the Laumonnier’s very much enjoyed the natural beauty which the United States has to offer and commented on the country’s geographic immensity.

At the Institut de Touraine, one of my professors, Alain Maydat, took a strong political position concerning the United States. For example, he was very surprised to learn the fact the the refusal of service to homosexual customers in stores was such a large point of contention in the United States. Similarly, he expressed concern to me and the class over issues of women’s rights and police brutality, both of which are problems facing the United States and France alike. Professor Maydat, being consistently concerned with the social problems the United States faces, drew a parallel between education in France and the United States, particularly business school, because his own son had gone through the process of acquiring loans to be able to attend such an institution. In this instance he recognized the common problem of student debt between the two countries. Also on the theme of education, Alain affirmed his support of laïcité, or secularism, which the French Republic upholds. I gathered that while the separation of church and state exists in the United States, it is a value held far more dearly in France. To conclude, Alain once asked us the differences we had noticed during our time in Tours between our respective cultures and France’s. I took this opportunity to say that I found the French to be far more quiet and reserved than Americans, a comment with which Alain agreed.

One of my favorite parts of being at the institute has been getting to meet students from not only around the United States but around the world and communicating with them in French. I thought that my friend Jennifer, who is from Taiwan but attends Tufts University in Boston, would be a perfect candidate to gather opinions about the United States because, although she is not a native speaker of French, she went through the first year of college as I did but from a completely different perspective. To best summarize her description of American culture, she used the word “diversity.” In Taiwan and in France, the culture is fairly to very homogenous and the parts that do not conform are often confined. While this can be true in the United States, Jennifer found that Americans embrace trying different things and encountering new people. While Americans would love to meet French university students, the inverse is not necessarily true. Moreover, she commented on the pride which Americans have in being American and the individualism which accompanies that. Lastly, she stated that Americans are very friendly and willing to help. I think this is definitely true but I also would like to add that the stereotype that French people are rude is not. Sure, people in Paris can be difficult but one finds elements of that in any large city where everyone is in a rush…

Hôtel de Ville

Jardin de Prébendes d’Oé

Jardin Botanique

Arriving in Siena

The Journey out to Italy

On Saturday morning, June 17th, my father and I got in the car and began the drive out to Chicago. Even though this was technically the beginning of my trip out to Italy, boarding the first of my two flights was my crossing of the Rubicon; once the plane began to move, I knew I would not be resting until I arrived in another continent. After transferring to another flight in Berlin, I arrived at the airport in Milan. With my passport stamped, I began assessing my options as I grabbed my bag from the baggage-claim. My train would be leaving for Florence in 45 minutes, yet driving to the train station would take at least twenty minutes. Consequently, I had to find a way to get to my train quickly. It was at this point that I had what I consider to be my first “Italian Experience.”

While exiting the station, I was approached by multiple companies providing taxi services to arriving travelers. I picked one, and the driver and I walked to the car. The person who had arranged my taxi for me had spoken with me in English, and consequently the driver assumed that I spoke no Italian. Therefore, when he asked where I was from and I responded in Italian, he was initially surprised and, almost immediately afterwords, excited. During the ride to the train station, we discussed my relationship with Italy and my previous exposure to the language. I told him that my great-grandparents were born in Sicily and that my grandparents on my father’s side still speak the language. He told me that his daughters were my age, and we concluded that he was roughly the same age as the prior generation in my family. As we arrived at Milano Centrale, I received one of the best compliments I have ever heard: “Cristoforo,” he said to me in Italian, “you have Italian in your blood.” Taking my bags from the trunk, I said goodbye and departed to find my train with plenty of time to spare.

On the train to Florence, I similarly spoke with the individual sitting across from me. He was slightly older than myself, around thirty years old, and was a policeman from Rome on vacation. He asked me where I was from (as many other Italians have). I told him I was from the United States. Again, he was impressed that I spoke any Italian at all. As the son of the owner of my B&B would later tell me, it is rare for Americans to come to Italy with any understanding of the language; I would soon find that my friends and I were without question an exception to the rule rather than the norm. After switching trains in Florence, I arrived approximately an hour later in Siena, Italy.

Since then, I have spent the majority of my time taking language classes and culture classes. Over the first couple of days, I made sure to acquaint myself with the city; as someone who loves maps, climbing the tower in the Piazza del Campo was a wonderful way to orient myself and familiarize myself with the surrounding area. As a consequence of my culture class, I have also been able to tour the Duomo of Siena, the Palazzo Publico, the Crypta below the Duomo, and one of the seventeen different Sienese Contradas (a very unique element of Sienese culture which I will explain in my next blog post). At the moment, I find that I can usually express myself relatively well in Italian but when others speak quickly to me, it can be easy for me to miss important phrases. My language class has been extremely helpful in terms of learning new grammatical structures; however, during the day I mainly focus on picking out new words I hear and memorizing them or recognizing words which I commonly use in English and searching for the equivalent in Italian. One of my favorite elements of my language class is our tendency to describe new words in Italian in place of translating directly into English. Doing so has already made me think more easily on my feet while speaking, and is likely part of the reason as to why expressing myself is easier than understanding others. During this next weekend, the Siena Palio will take place. Next week, I will describe what it’s like to live in Siena during its most important week of the year and explain in what ways I have been involved with those cultural events. A presto!


The view of Siena at the top of the Palazzo Publico’s watchtower.