Humanities Lab Spotlight: Chinese Food Culture and Changing Landscape

The Center for the Arts and Humanities is proud to provide grants to support the development of exciting new humanities labs, which give students the opportunity to approach the humanities through experiential learning. In this article, we highlight the humanities lab “Chinese Food Culture and Changing Landscape.” This advanced Chinese language course used cuisine as an entry point for exploring Chinese culture, history, and literature, and was created by Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Andie Wang (pictured right).

Professor Wang teaches several Chinese language courses, and wanted to find a unique way to engage students in her advanced course. So, she added food, which she believes to be an easy entry way into any new culture. Food culture is a very flexible topic, allowing for a wide variety of language skills. Her classes could be as simple as cooking classes, in which students had to learn the words for ingredients and instructions (pictured to the left and below), and as complex as the discussion of sociocultural issues surrounding food safety and policy in China. Chinese food culture is a rich topic to explore, with a long history and a wide array of regional and generational differences. The topic of food also allowed students to bring many of their own diverse perspectives and experiences to the course. They enjoyed discussing their own cultural cuisines, which included Jewish, Greek, Indonesian, Panamanian, and Mexican.

The lab was focused on four themes. The first was ‘food mapping’. Students were asked to create a digital food map related to themselves, including some of the most memorable foods they’d ever tried. The second theme was ‘food and humans’, which involved exploring personal stories relating to food. The third was ‘food and social life’, which encouraged students to become food anthropologists, observing the social interactions and discussions that happened during meals. The final theme was ‘immigration’. Students studied how Chinese immigrants worldwide brought dishes with them and impacted their new countries of residence.

A major component of the lab was hands-on experiential learning. Each month, pairs or groups of students took turns teaching the class how to cook different Chinese dishes which they had pre-selected. Through learning to cook these dishes and explaining their techniques and flavors in Chinese, students expanded their skills and their vocabularies. Professor Wang also assigned different students to be tea masters, bringing in a set of teacups and pots and allowing them to select which tea they would brew for the class, which they then served in a traditional Chinese manner.

The Center for the Arts and Humanities also provided Professor Wang with funding to take some of her students on a voluntary trip to Manhattan on September 21st to 22nd, where they attended a “Food and Ideas Festival” organized by the China Institute of America. They attended panel discussions and presentations on Chinese food, participated in a food tasting, visited a night market, and dined at a well-known Chinese restaurant. It was an intensive experience, and the students enjoyed themselves immensely. Another exciting event the students participated in was the Robert’s Dining Hall International Food Festival. A number of student groups prepared different international foods, which were tasted by hundreds of students and judged by a panel. The Chinese food which Professor Wang’s students prepared was so delicious that it won first place in the competition. The final event of the course was a banquet in the Pugh Center, for which students created their favorite Chinese dishes and teas, and then shared them with the Colby community (pictured above).

Professor Wang expressed her gratitude to the Center for inspiring her to design this lab and to explore connections within the Colby community. She appreciates being able to attend workshops and hear other professor’s approaches. “It’s inspirational to be involved in the Center”, she said, “which serves as a very supportive space so that we can have a teaching community.”