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Ethnic Food Can Advance Diversity Education, If Done Right

You are going to eat at a decent Chinese restaurant with your friends. But wait, do you want Chinese food or Americanized Chinese food? Undoubtedly, Americanized ethnic food, such as American pizza, or American dumplings, is now everywhere: not only in Pizza Hut or Panda Express, but also in Pomona dining halls. 

Pomona has tried hard to provide students with more diverse ethnic foods to promote awareness of different cultures, but the Americanized ethnic foods, or foreign foods served with American ingredients such as sugar, butter or cream, can hardly promote diversity. In fact, more and more cultures are misrepresented by the Americanized ethnic foods.

As a Chinese student, I was at first surprised and excited by the Chinese wontons provided at Frank. However, once I took a bite, all my excitement evaporated. I never thought wontons, traditional Chinese cuisine with meat or vegetables inside and usually served in boiled water, could be fried and served with sour cream. This was awkward Chinese food. I began to feel upset, in the same way that one of my Chinese friends was when she saw the “special” dumplings offered at Frank, which look like meat soup with peas without dumpling skins. Inauthentic international foods, different from our hometown flavors, strongly remind us international students that we are foreigners. This realization makes us feel remote and isolated. 

However, I was not only disappointed about the food. I was saddened when my American friend said he tried the fried Chinese wontons. I was worried that these “Chinese” cheese wontons or “Chinese” dumplings could misrepresent the Chinese cultures that I cherish. 

Traditional recipes not only tell people how to cook, but also show people the history and culture that food can represent. In his book Food is Culture, Massimo Montanari, a professor of Medieval History and History of Food at Bologna University and a leading expert on food history and culture, reminds us that recipes allowed food to develop into a complex cultural product as a result of “climate, geography and the pursuit of pleasure.” Ethnic foods form and develop in accordance with unique climates and traditions. Food offered at Frank or Frary is not just something to sustain us, but can also serve as a venue for intercultural exchange. 

For premier colleges like Pomona, dining halls are an often-overlooked educational opportunity. They can serve to effectively teach students about cultures, to seek diversity in cuisine, and to avoid cultural misrepresentation. Providing students with inauthentic Indian curry or Americanized Spanish rice cannot fulfill the goal of educating students about real diversity in everyday life. It also contradicts the principle stated in the Trustees’ Statement on Diversity that “diversity as an institutional value is crucial to the education of our students.” 

Fortunately, it is possible for Pomona to reestablish the educational values of ethnic food to benefit students. The international community here at Pomona could offer first-hand suggestions to improve its ethnic food.  A discussion panel between international students and dining hall staff could offer specific suggestions for modifying the current cuisine. International students could offer recipes of their traditional food (I would be happy to offer an authentic recipe for wontons). Also, Pomona could hire or train chefs with different culinary backgrounds, who could master, for example, Chinese food, Thai food or French food with student input. With Pomona’s annual budget ($147,070,000 in fiscal year 2010-2011), it should be feasible to hire those chefs. For an educational institution, hiring chefs with particular culinary expertise would be a worthwhile investment—it would also attract more prospective students and contribute to Pomona’s diversity mission.

In addition, the dining halls could hold festivals, like Asian or European Food Days, with workshops teaching students how to make more authentic cuisine. When the students cook and enjoy the delicious food, they also get to voluntarily learn about various cultures. In addition to “47 things to do” trips, Pomona could sponsor a “47 ethnic foods” exhibition with real Chinese dumplings, Indian curry, Peruvian ceviche and Spanish rice. Because food is something everyone needs daily, by serving authentic ethnic food, the dining halls can contribute significantly to diversity education.

One day, when I introduce Peking roast duck at lunch at Frary, and then later enjoy Russian shie postnie (with a vivid introduction about the recipe from my Russian classmates) at dinner at Frank, I will know the time has come when everybody will learn about cultures in a delicious way.

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