By Karen Kelly
Photos by Bryan Gagnon
Like so many international students, Shihan Liu missed familiar foods when she first arrived in Canada. It wasn’t just food from China, but from the coastal region where she grew up in the Northeast. Even more specifically, it was her mom’s cooking.
“My mom always texted me to remind me what I should eat during Chinese festivals,” says Shihan, who earned a Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies degree in 2017. “I appreciated it, but it was also annoying because I couldn’t take the day off and find those traditional foods. It just amplified my homesickness.”
That experience gave Shihan an idea for her master’s thesis.
“I wanted to know if my compatriots felt the same: that a gap had occurred between what’s important to their families and what’s important to them,” she explains.
Shihan recruited 15 Chinese national students and asked them about their daily food consumption, as well as their experience at the 2018 Night Market Chinatown, a celebration of Asian cuisines in Ottawa. She wanted to know how the formation of identity plays out in dietary acculturation.
“I found they were becoming more hybrid in the sense that they consume a greater variety of Asian cuisines, as well as Chinese cuisine from other regions,” found Shihan. “However, Canadian cuisine was only a small portion of their food consumption.”
Shihan attributes this to the importance of food in Chinese culture.
“Many international student friendships are constructed around food. When Chinese students first meet, they go to Chinese restaurants together, then cook food at home, and then celebrate festivals together,” explains Shihan. “They tend to hang out with other Chinese students because of the language barrier and cultural differences.”
But she points out that by retreating into this group, they are losing an opportunity to learn more about other cultures.
“I wanted to find out more about the motivations and barriers for us to engage in multicultural interactions,” she says.
As Shihan finishes up her master’s degree, she is planning to stay in Canada and work in the advertising industry.
And while she loves the food she grew up with, she has some advice for other international students.
“Try other cuisines, explore more, and don’t limit yourself to what’s familiar,” says Shihan. “The world is vivid. It thrives on diversity, so keep exploring and having fun.”
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