Top 5 Things I’ve Learned – Food

Ask any well-traveled person (or even Google!) about differences to expect when you go abroad, and virtually all of them will mention something about food.  The way that food is prepared, served, and enjoyed varies widely among countries, and often even cities, and often offers a window to deeper cultural beliefs or identities. While I could logically understand this before traveling abroad, my time is China has truly revealed how food customs are a part of my identity, as well as how they offer an opportunity to observe Chinese culture. Here are five things I’ve learned about food culture in China:

1. Convenience. It seems that, in America, food is prepared and provided in such a way that it can get from the store or your plate to your stomach as quickly as possible. American utensils are designed to shovel in large amounts of food at once (I distinctly remember being disturbed when I visited an American frozen yogurt chain and was handed a shovel-shaped spoon to use to enjoy my cup of yogurt). Fish and meat are sold and served de-boned the vast majority of the time, but that is not the case in China. Food in America is available 24/7 – even in small American towns, you can find a place to buy food at virtually any time of day or night. I was certainly surprised to find that, unlike Notre Dame’s dining halls that are open all day from 0700-2130, Peking University’s dining halls are only open for two-hour periods during each meal time.

Of course Beijing has it’s share of fast food (as well as an extensive fast food delivery system), but looking at the culture as a whole, the Chinese pay a lot of attention to the flavors, preparation, and presentation of their food, not simply how filling it is or how quickly it can be eaten. Chinese people often take their time buying ingredients and preparing their meals by hand, in contrast to the ready-made, frozen, and canned meals and ingredients that are found throughout American supermarkets. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my Mom’s casseroles, but is dumping and mixing together the contents of several cans in a large dish and plopping it in the oven for an hour really a homemade meal? I think that this concept of American convenience vs. Chinese careful preparation can be clearly illustrated in hot pot, a very popular and traditional Chinese dining experience. When you go to have hot pot, you simply have a boiling pot of broth in the center of the table and are given different types of raw meat and veggies to share with others at your table. You cook the food slowly, one thing at a time, enjoying conversation and allowing yourself to eat slowly, one small plate at a time, enjoying the process of not just eating but also preparing your food. I do appreciate the convenience and ease of food in America, but there’s something more to the experience when you take your time and are forced to eat bite by bite.

2. Regional cuisine differences. Just as in America we have a variety of regional cuisine, from the fried chicken and apple pie of the South to the fresh seafood dishes of the Northeast, different regions in China also have distinct differences and types of food. However, in China, these variations are even more extreme – if you took a dinner spread from two different Chinese provinces, you might not even be able to guess that they came from the same country! Northern Chinese food (including Beijing food), is known to be saltier, simpler, and contain less vegetables and instead more grains (like rice or bread) as the staple food. I learned to love the steamed buns and mantou in the Peking University dining halls every day – while in America rolls are rarely served without a dipping sauce or accompanying dish, I came to enjoy the fluffiness and slightly sweet taste of the steamed dough.  Another of my favorite dishes I ate in Beijing was the traditional Peking duck – can you really visit Beijing without downing this specialty? In general, Chinese people seem willing to try nearly any dish, and while I couldn’t bring myself to ear a few specialties like crispy scorpion found at street vendors, I was lucky to be able to try so many different dishes while in China!

3. Food as community. In many ways, food is tied to the way Chinese people interact with one another – in fact, a common greeting in China is “吃了吗?”, which literally translates to “Have you eaten?”. The culture surrounding food and going out to eat in China is markedly different than that in America. I often felt uncomfortable going to restaurants and even cafes alone – eating in China is an extremely communal activity. When you go out to a restaurant, you never order one dish for yourself – rather, you order many dishes and share them by spinning the large lazy susan in the middle of every table. People serve food to one another, take little bits at a time, and don’t mind eating food that other people’s chopsticks have touched. There is also certain etiquette when you go out to eat – the host can never run out of food (that’s considered very embarrassing) so they often over-order; the way in which people are seated around the table is carefully considered based on honor/social standing; you are expected to “fight” over who pays the bill. Food and the way in which it is eaten is certainly a cornerstone of Chinese culture.

4. American Chinese food and Chinese American food. America really oversimplifies Chinese food – that General Tso’s chicken and lo mein you like to order from the Chinese place down the street probably doesn’t have many dishes you would actually find in China, and if it does, they are probably “Americanized” – extra oil or salt, extra sauce, fewer vegetables, etc. China has a vast array of American fast food, including McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks (the menus are often different from the American versions to appeal more to the Chinese customer). In addition to the fast food, China also has a huge delivery service network – using apps, you can order anything from a McDonald’s burger to a Uniqlo t-shirt and have it delivered to you. When I ordered my first McDonald’s delivery, I joked to my friends that Beijing was “out-American-ing” us! In addition to the fast food, Beijing did also have some pretty good Western restaurants (my friends and I went to one for the Fourth of July and ate burgers, salad, baked beans, coleslaw, and strawberry shortcake!), but generally speaking the authentic ones are few and far between. While I was impressed with the number of American restaurants in Beijing, I think it’s safe to say that both America and China oversimplify the other’s foods.

5. The importance of comfort food. After just a couple of weeks in Beijing, all I wanted was a home-made American comfort food like a plate of mac n cheese or lasagna, or a bowl of my mom’s turkey chowder. I missed even simpler American staple foods like grilled chicken and vegetables, flavored with familiar spices and rubs. More than that, I missed staple foods that I know how to mix and match – for example, in America, I know which foods are healthy and which to put on my plate to make a complete and balanced meal, but among all of the unfamiliar dishes and spices in China, I had a hard time knowing how things were cooked, what I would like, what would give me energy, etc. I missed American food enough at the beginning that I walked for 50 minutes to Walmart (granted, this could have been made easier by using the subways, but I hadn’t figured them out yet) just to buy some peanut butter and jelly! As I continued to try new Chinese foods, I found some things that I really liked; some of my favorite food experiences in Beijing were drinking warm soymilk, slightly less sweet than American soymilk, with breakfast in the morning (replacing coffee); yogurt bottles that could be found at nearly every street vendor (in Beijing, yogurt is extremely popular, but instead of eating it with a spoon yogurt is consumed through a straw!); and baozi, which is essentially China’s “fast food” – small steamed buns filled with different types of meats and vegetables. There was a baozi store about a 5-minute walk from my dorm that I frequented weekly; the service was fast, and you could buy 6 baozi for less than 2 U.S. dollars!

Visiting China certainly gave me an appreciation for the unique and varied cuisine of the country, as well as made me appreciate the food customs and dishes that are ingrained in me as an American. Now I sometimes find myself craving authentic Chinese food instead of American food – just one more reason that I will need to go back to China again one day!

Top 5 Things I’ve Learned – Culture

Every weekday, we get the opportunity to practice our Chinese one-one-one for nearly an hour with one of our instructors. These sessions are very informal, and while they are meant to reinforce the grammar and vocabulary we have learned that day, they often turn into interesting conversations about friends, activities, politics, social media, and anything else that we feel like talking about – just like I would have a conversation in English with my American friends. Our second-year Chinese instructors are young, smart and interesting, and are always willing to discuss complicated topics with us. Here are five things I’ve learned from these conversations:

1. The American Dream and the Chinese Dream are extremely opposite. In America, personal opportunity is paramount, and we’re told that if you work hard enough, you, personally, can be extremely successful. However, in China, the success of the country is much more important than the needs of individuals. Even Chinese children are taught that they should not work hard for their own money and success, but rather to better China at large. This idea of sacrificing personal glory is much less common in the United States. However, while this cultural belief is definitely different, that doesn’t mean the people are very different – Chinese people want to provide for their families and feel proud of their successes, and Americans have a lot of patriotism and place a lot of importance and value on service.

2. In some ways related to my above point, discipline is extremely important in China. Every college student does at least a week or two of mandatory military training (i.e. physical training, learning how to properly make a bed and fold clothes, being yelled at by the equivalent of drill sergeants). Many Chinese primary and secondary schools have a rigorous class schedule in addition to daily physical training – many of my Chinese friends recount running around their school’s track in formation every morning while repeating some book knowledge. This discipline can be seen further in the strict parental guidance that is common in Chinese households – children must learn to be disciplined in how they manage their time, often placing extreme importance on grads and sacrificing all other activities to focus on school and homework every day. From a young age, Chinese people often must put their work and duties above their own desires and are taught to listen and heed the instructions of authority. There is MUCH less room to ask “why?” or question authority in China – from children to their parents to citizens to their government.

3. Perceptions of North Korea and Russia are completely different. In America, those countries are perceived as scary or bad, but that’s not necessarily the case in China. In fact, many Chinese people like to visit North Korea because they think it’s interesting or funny to see inside the secretive country! As an American, I would never even consider venturing into North Korea, but to Chinese people, the idea isn’t too uncommon.

4. Public safety is completely different in China. Before entering campus every day, I had to show my ID card to a guard at one of the four gate entrances. As an American, my initial, natural reaction was that this was to prevent bad people from getting on to campus, i.e. school shooters. However, it wasn’t until I took a minute to think about it that I realized threats like school shootings generally don’t happen in China. Private citizens are not allowed to have guns or weapons of any type, and punishments for crimes such as murder are generally harsher than in America. Additionally, China has not faced the terrorist threats in attacks that have been on the rise in America and Europe; while the police watch and monitor for those events very closely, from what I know the only terror threats they face are from small groups from the more rural eastern China. I felt very safe in Beijing, even when walking alone on the streets at night, which to be completely honest I can’t say about most of the American cities or towns I’ve been to.

5. There is an incredible blend of tradition and modernism throughout China, especially in big cities. China is a huge country with a storied history, which can clearly be showcased in the architecture and preserved parks in the cities, but also much more modern than I expected, which can be seen in things like modern buildings and public transportation, but even smaller things such as how people use WeChat or AliPay (phone apps) to purchase virtually everything in the city. This divide between old and new is also evidenced in the people’s attitudes and values – many people hold more traditional or “old-school” views about things such as marriage, homosexuality, and filial duty; however, at the same time, many people, especially young people, are becoming increasingly open-minded and aren’t much different from young people you might meet in America. I definitely didn’t not expect the level of modernism that I saw in Beijing, and I think this dichotomy of tradition and modernism will only continue to grow and change in the future.

A Global Community

As I boarded my Seattle plane headed for Beijing nearly two months ago, I was, to be honest, a little terrified. I nervously clutched my purse as I handed over my ticket to the airline worker, too anxious to say even a simple “你好” (“hello”) to the flight attendants as I found my seat. This was my first time I was to leave the safety and comfort of America, and was headed to a country that not only a 15 hour difference in time from home but also, I suspected, extreme differences in language, culture, and customs.

Little did I know that, even so far from my small town in the deserts of Southern California, I would find a new home and a new community in the bustling city of Beijing. After landing in Beijing, Notre Dame program directors and teachers immediately helped me find my way to campus, carry my luggage to my room, and asked several times if they could help me find dinner or any toiletries I needed. Despite being surrounded by an unfamiliar cityscape, I immediately felt welcomed and taken care of by the Notre Dame staff/professors here for the summer Notre Dame in Beijing program.

I continued to feel the comfort of the Notre Dame community as I started classes and got more accustomed to the city. My classmates have diverse backgrounds, majors, and interests, but there is immediate camaraderie in being able to joke about our Notre Dame dorm experiences, commiserating about the workload and pressure of being a Notre Dame student (even during this summer program!), and of course, getting excited about the nearing football season and return to campus. Even in an unfamiliar city,  having the Notre Dame “family” made me feel comfortable, and they are they best people with whom to explore Beijing!

Beyond just my twelve classmates plus instructors, this Notre Dame community here is broadened by the Beijing Global Gateway. The Gateway is, according to Notre Dame’s website, “provide academic and intellectual hubs where scholars, students, and leaders from universities, government, business, and community gather to discuss, discover, and debate issues of topical and enduring relevance”. Basically, it connects Notre Dame students to people and opportunities in China and greater Asia, as well as connects people, businesses, and leaders to the Notre Dame campus.  While we were here, the Global Gateway hosted a large event (which included a welcome event and a fabulous lunch) to which every person in Beijing connected to the university was invited – current student studying abroad or interning in Beijing, ND graduates who live in Beijing, current students who are from Beijing, incoming students from Beijing and their parents, professors in Beijing, and other friends of the university. It was impressive to see how large the ND network is half a world away from the physical ND campus. The event made me feel lucky and proud to be part of a university that is internationally respected and connected, and really made me excited about all of the opportunities that the Notre Dame “family” – including the international community – presents.

Attendees of the Notre Dame Beijing Global Gateway event

Notre Dame has some of the most intelligent, interesting, kind, and accomplished people in its community – including students, professors, and alumni. Being a part of this program has reminded me of this. Ye Laoshi, a Chinese professor at Notre Dame and our resident program director here, sacrificed seeing his son’s birth (which happened just a week ago!) to serve us in this program. Another instructor, Huang Laoshi, accompanied and stayed with one of my classmates at the hospital when she caught the flu, then continuously checked up on her until she was feeling better. My instructors and classmates always take time to really ask how I am doing, and I feel comfortable asking for help with any matter, no matter how small. The people here go above and beyond to challenge us in the classroom, as well as provide a support network out of class as we explore this new country.

Notre Dame in Beijing students and instructors, plus a couple of other ND students working in different ND Beijing summer programs!

These experiences have reminded me why I chose this program over other summer programs – not just for the outstanding Chinese instruction and improvement in my language skills, but also for the people. I constantly feel grateful to be a part of the Notre Dame community, and even this far away from our beautiful campus, I still feel connected to that community – to me, that is a very special and unique thing!


A Weekend in Xi’An

As part of the program tuition we pay to attend the Notre Dame in Beijing program, we are funded to have lunch with our classmates and instructors at “Chinese Language Table” every Friday, as well as take weekend trips to places like the Great Wall of China, Beijing museums, and classic Beijing acrobatics shows. Our longest weekend trip happened halfway through our program when we had the opportunity to visit Xi’an – an extremely historic city west of Beijing – for three full days.

Xi’an is best known for having the Terracotta warriors, but this city really has a wealth of activities, history, and interesting people.  Xi’an is widely considered one of the most historical cities in China as it served as the cultural, political, and economic center of China for thousands of years, with history dating back 5000 or 6000 years. Qin Shihuang, the emperor who unified China into one nation in 210 B.C., lived and built his empire in Xi’an, and many following dynasties also ruled from Xi’an. Additionally, Xi’an was the eastern-most point on the ancient Silk Road which connected regions across ancient Eurasia that was crucial for trade and the spread of culture and ideas. Here are just a few of the amazing things I got to experience on this trip:

The first night we arrived, we were treated to a lively demonstration of Xi’an’s thriving and lively nightlife. While walking through a downtown plaza near Big Goose Pagoda, a famous historic temple area, we were surrounded by huge crowds of people walking and enjoying the night, as well as several groups dancing. They each their own speakers and seemed to have several people who knew what they were doing; we excitedly joined in and tried to keep up with the various steps. Some of the groups were keeping fast Zumba-like paces, others seemed to be doing slower, more traditional moves, and one group was completely comprised of elderly dancers waving umbrellas and fans and moving in a coordinated maze-like dance. There were many locals and tourists alike wandering through the plaza, enjoying the dances, and soaking in the city’s atmosphere. Even late into the night, the city was bustling with traffic and energy!

Dancers in a central Xi’an plaza; Big Goose Pagoda, a local attraction, can be seen in the left background. Xi’an was lively at all times of day and night!

Of course, probably the most famous Xi’an attraction is the Terracotta warriors. These thousands of clay figures, each, incredibly, different in facial expression and clothing, were built to guard Qin Shihuang’s (China’s first emperor) tomb and accompany him to the afterlife. There are also horses, chariots, swords, arrow tips, and other weapons that have been excavated; while almost all of these figures and objects are dull gray today, patches of paint hint at once brightly colored clothes. Archaeologists estimate there to be 8,000 figures, but the total may never be known, and archaeologists are still in the process of unearthing the artifacts in four different “pit” areas. The sheer scale of the project – the number of warriors, the detail put into each clay figure, as well as the size of the sites in which they are buried – is extremely impressive, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole thing to me was how long they went undiscovered. Emperor Qin died in 208 BC, but the figures were not discovered until the 1970s! Another fascinating aspect of this site is Emperor Qin’s actual mausoleum. It took archaeologists years to locate his burial site (it seems the terracotta warriors did an outstanding job of guarding their emperor), and it still has not been opened as archaeologists believe we do not have the proper tools and techniques to get in without damaging the tomb. Qin’s tomb is expected to contain ever greater riches and more impressive figures and carvings. This site is a testament to the power and grandeur of ancient Chinese emperors, as well as the intelligence and creativity of humans to have created and hid such a stunning project for so many years.

The main pit containing the clay figures; way bigger and more impressive than I expected!
Our NDiB group before entering the first Terracotta Warrior pit






A projection of what Emperor Qin’s city in Xi’an might have looked like; all of this has been destroyed or buried by today. The terracotta warrior pits can be seen on the left side of the model.

We also had the opportunity to bike along the Xi’an city wall. In ancient China, most cities had walls enclosing the main city to serve as protection from invaders and other outsiders, but today many have been destroyed or knocked down. Xi’an’s is one of the oldest, largest, and best-preserved city walls. It took a couple of hours to bike the entire length of the wall, along which you could see many ramparts, ancient watchtowers, and one “archery tower” which provided protection to one of the gates of the wall. In ancient times, the wall had a moat, drawbridges, watch towers, corner towers, parapet walls and gate towers; today, some of these features have been removed or decayed. Regardless, the ride was a really incredible time to imagine the history of the city while observing the new modern buildings and construction inside the walls – as well as get my body moving and enjoying a truly beautiful day in the city!

Our group before splitting up to explore
A view from my bicycle








In true Chinese fashion, every meal was a big and communal. My classmates and I joke that we didn’t have time to feel hungry for even a moment on the trip, since we were always given so much good food! We got to try many traditional Xi’an and Chinese dishes, including mutton soup and biang biang noodles. Before eating the mutton soup, you are given two pieces of flatbread which you must then tear into hundreds of small pieces, to which the server adds a special meat and broth. The bread absorbs the broth, and you are left with a special and extremely tasty stew! Biang biang noodles are also a famous, special treat – they are thick, belt-like noodles that are specially made in Xi’an. The “biang” character is the considered the most complex in the Chinese language, and most Chinese people do not know how to write it! My favorite fact about these tasty noodles is why they were named – according to our server at the noodle restaurant we tried, they are called “biang biang” because that is the sound that can be heard as the noodles are being flapped and stretched as they are created, as well as when they are being slurped up and enjoyed by hungry people like our group!

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to get out of Beijing and explore a different side of China with my classmates. I am constantly fascinated and impressed by the vast history of this country, as well as modern developments; my weekend in Xi’an was a fantastic opportunities to explore both new and old Chinese culture.

Temple of Heaven (and Other Adventures)

My first week in Beijing was a whirlwind, to say the least! Between adapting to the challenging class load, figuring out how to order the food I wanted in the Peking University cafeterias (and figuring out what the food was in the first place!), and supplementing my still-developing Chinese language skills with a plethora of hand motions and head nods, I felt exhausted by the time the weekend rolled around. However, every Saturday the Notre Dame in Beijing program directors and professors plan an excursion for us – and I was not about to miss out on my first opportunity to explore this city!

China has an extraordinary, storied history that spans more than five thousand years. While people first settled in what is now Beijing nearly half a million years ago, it wasn’t until 1279 A.D. that it was first made China’s capital by Mongolian invaders. After turbulence in China and the eventual rise of the Ming Dynasty, Beijing became China’s permanent capital city in 1421 – it was at that time that the city’s grid system and many landmarks were created. Since then, the city has seen many major events – including the Boxer Rebellion, Mao Zedong’s revolution, and recently, an incredible modernization, population, and catapult to the world stage aided by the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

We got to learn more about some of this history by visiting the Beijing Capital Museum,  北京首都博物馆 (beijing shoudu bowuguan). The museum has extensive exhibits of porcelain ware, paintings, jade, bronze vessels, seals, needleworks, Buddhist statues, calligraphy, and coins from different times in China’s history – some pieces date as far back as the New Stone Age! My favorite part of the museum was the Exhibition on History. In the huge exhibit hall, the wall was lined with a timeline of major world events dating back hundreds of years (i.e. Hundred Years’ War, French Revolution, etc.), and the center of the hall across from the corresponding timeline dates were diagrams, pictures, and relics detailing life in China during that time. So, for example, I saw some traditional clothing and house wares, as well as read about what was happening in Chinese culture and economy, at the time when the American Revolutionary War was happening half a world away. It was a fantastic introduction to the history and beauty of China.

Notre Dame in Beijing program at the Beijing Capital Museum

After leaving the museum, we took the subway to 天坛 (tiantan) – The Temple of Heaven. It is one of the few surviving ancient temples in the Beijing area, originally constructed in 1420 during the Ming dynasty and maintained very well ever since. The area consists not only of the iconic Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and surrounding temples originally used for sacrifice and prayer, but also beautifully landscaped paths and gardens. The various temples, altars, and other architecture symbolize the relationship between heaven and the people on earth, and are masterpieces of ancient Chinese culture. It was fantastic to visit this beautiful, historic oasis in the middle of the huge, bustling city.

Temple of Heaven park

In addition to these trips, I learned a couple of other things this weekend – most notably, I had my first taste of 讨价还价 (taojiahuanjia) – bargaining at Chinese markets! I’m still a little put off by the aggressive shopkeepers and back-and-forth haggling process, but with a little more practice, I’ll be ready to get some of the cool and (very realistic) knock-off items offered at the various markets in Beijing! I also learned how to maneuver through Beijing’s extensive subway system – it is surprisingly clean, cool, and easy for an English speaker to navigate.

The Chinese have a saying that essentially means “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”: 入乡随俗 (ruxiangsuisu). This will be my motto as I continue to experience this new culture and make it my second home.