Taste of Home

by Sakina Abu Boakye and Min Kyung Jeon | 10/24/13 10:00pm

Zan Song '16, a native of Shenzhen, hasn't been home since freshman fall, but her eyes still light up as she describes the savory dishes found in a Muslim district near her home. Her affinity for Chinese-Muslim food drew her to a diverse array of noodle soups, meat dumplings and sandwiches, among which a type of pork sandwich named "rou jia mo" stands out. A successful rou jia mo spread should have spotted exterior similar to leopard print. To complement the crisp, dry surface, the moist interior is infused with juice after the pork is placed on top of the bread. The meat also has to be extremely well-cooked in order to reach the ideal level of succulent tenderness.

"It doesn't feel like it's going through your taste buds, then your mouth, transmitted through your nerves and into your brain," she said. "It feels like a direct perception, as if the sandwich is being gripped directly onto your brain nerves, and your brain nerves absorb the food with an explosion of flavors."

With the term halfway over, homesickness is sweeping through residence halls, classroom walls and dining facilities, reviving memories of delectable home-cooked food, favorite spots and activities that tug at students' heartstrings. For many international students at Dartmouth, homesickness derives from unfamiliarity with various aspects of American culture, among which food features prominently.

George Boateng '16, who hails from Accra, Ghana, subsisted on a diet of FoCo fries and grilled chicken thighs for the better part of his freshman year because he struggled to adjust to American food during his first experience living abroad.

"The main difference is that food back home is generally very spicy," he said. "Over here, the food is pretty bland."

Boateng characterized his relationship with American food as a struggle and "an ongoing process," which he has attempted to navigate by immersing himself in the close-knit Ghanaian community on campus.

He and other Ghanaians on campus occasionally cook homemade meals together, including his favorites, rice with spicy stew and fried chicken or jolouf rice with fried plantains and fried chicken.

Apart from missing Ghanaian food, Boateng has struggled with homesickness. He hasn't returned home since arriving at Dartmouth, but the feeling peaked in the last three weeks. As the youngest and only male child in his family, his parents had always doted on him. College life allowed him to thrive in his newfound independence but a weekly phone call with his family brought up dormant feelings.

Boateng plans to visit his hometown during winter break and would like to go home at least once a year from now on.

Bing Wang '16, from Wuhan, China, attended high school in Singapore, but Dartmouth was her first experience living in the United States Dartmouth's food looked and still looks foreign to her, and Hanover's Chinese food bears no resemblance to what she eats at home.

"It's actually when you go out that you miss home food the most," she said, playing with her bread bowl soup from the Kosher section in FoCo. "It's something that you cannot get, and you keep missing it."

Wang takes advantage of care packages from home and the stir-fry in FoCo. At times, she cooks her own version of a Chinese hotpot.

"It's a giant pot where you just dump everything inside," she said. "It has some very spicy sauce, so when you take it out, it's really nice."

In her homemade hotpot, Wang includes lotus roots, fish eggs and Szechuan sauce, purchased at a Chinese grocery store in West Lebanon.

Unlike Wang, Hayley Son '15, from Ilsan, South Korea, has more or less adapted to Dartmouth cuisine, despite the fact it is her first time living abroad. At first, Son didn't know much about American dishes like grilled cheese sandwiches, burritos and subs, but after a few terms at Dartmouth, she said she knows what to expect and even enjoys some of the food. She does not miss home food that much, but when she does, it is generally "grilled pork bellies with lettuce and soy sauce."

Though Son has not missed Korean food, she is not immune to homesickness.

"Freshman year, I didn't really have a good way to deal with my homesickness, so I would just get stressed out a lot," she said.

Homesickness struck hard during last spring, when she turned to speaking Korean with her friends because she felt stressed from having to speak English, her second language, all the time.

She now plans to visit home every winter and summer break.

"Three terms, I guess, is the maximum I can handle," Son joked.

Quyen Hoang '16, born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, expressed the same yearning for home when she confessed that FoCo's version of pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, simply does not compare to her mother's authentic preparation.

"I miss home food the most when I need comfort, when I'm sick or depressed," Hoang said. "In those times, all the childhood memories of home-cooked meals flood back."

Hoang fondly described her mother's Vietnamese congee, a rice porridge dish that she likens to oatmeal or macaroni and cheese in the American context but characterizes as representative of Vietnamese culture.

Unlike many international students, who have bases only in the United States or their native countries, her family is scattered around: she studies in the U.S., her sister lives in England and her parents reside in Vietnam, which complicates her schedule for visits home.

Hoang is considering living off-campus next year so she can cook on her own and rely less on Dartmouth Dining Services.

Sophia Johnston '15, who hails from London, said Dartmouth's food is not a major concern for her. London is an international city with such a broad spectrum of foreign cuisines, making for less of a difference between her home food and American food. She cited a Food Network survey naming chicken tikka masala as the U.K.'s most popular dish as evidence of the international nature of British cuisine.

As for Dartmouth's dining, she expressed satisfaction with the wide range of fresh produce and seasonal diets that three different DDS facilities offer.

Mir Faiyaz '16, from Dubai, said that while he misses his mother's home-cooked shawarma, a "burrito-like chicken wrap," he adapted to college food because he grew up in an Americanized neighborhood where pizza and wings are commonly served.

Our brief probing into the relationship between international students and homesickness had a primary focus on local cuisine. We discovered, however, that international students have divergent levels of attachment to, or identification with, home food, whether it is meals painstakingly prepared by their parents or conveniently acquired in the streets. No matter the circumstances, all students are susceptible to homesickness, with international students' homesickness somewhat more complicated by geographical and cultural barriers.

Song is a former reporter for The Dartmouth.