Tuesday 17 January 2012

Remembering a Homesick Friend

Chinese New Year is next week, on January 23.  It's got me thinking about a Chinese friend of ours who came to Canada as a student more than a decade ago, and boarded at our house for a year after he arrived.  

When he first came to stay with us, our friend spoke very little English.  Everything around him was new and strange to him.  He must have been scared to death.  

Despite homesickness and the formidable language barrier, our friend completed the two-year ESL program in just eighteen months and went on to get a Bachelor of Commerce degree by the time he was twenty-two.  He then returned to China, to work for the company that employed his father as a factory manager.

Our Chinese friend opened a door for us, helping us toward an understanding of his culture that we would never have attained without him.  This seems a good time to revisit a piece I wrote about him all those years ago. 


We have an international student boarding with us this year.  It's our first experience as hosts and we're learning as much or more than our student is, I'm sure. 

Our student is an 18-year-old boy from the city of Huan Yan in the province of Zheziang, China.  He's a nice boy: polite, studious, gifted with a wonderful sense of humour, and very brave.  I say he is brave because, just weeks out of high school, he has traveled thousands of kilometres from home to a place where everything--language, customs and even food--is unfamiliar, with no prospect of going home for at least a year.  I'm not sure I could do it. 

We have been very concerned that our young charge might be homesick but, whenever we question him about it, he tells us "I am not lonely. I have you!"  He is incredibly curious about all aspects of our life and he spends a lot of time in the kitchen asking me about ingredients and getting me to teach him how we prepare our meals.  Like most 18-year-old boys, he is always hungry.  He tells me that, when he goes home, he wants to be able to tell his mother that he can cook Canadian food.  My friends are pretty amused by that because, so far, he has learned to make perogies, borscht, colcannon, cock-a-leekie soup, German sweet-and-sour cabbage, and a variety of Italian dishes.  I point out to them that all these things are Canadian because the single common factor uniting most Canadians is that we (or some recent generation of our family) are from somewhere else.

Because of our boarder's interest in cooking, I am ashamed to tell you that I didn't realize how very much he missed the tastes of home.  He admitted on his first day here that he had never before tasted western food or eaten with a fork and yet it still didn't click with me how much he must be longing for the kinds of meals he was accustomed to.  We have hot soy milk and steamed buns or rice porridge for breakfast at least once or twice a week and I try to take him shopping with me so that he can point out to me the fruits and vegetables that he likes to eat, but it's not enough.  I know this now because we went to the library together this week and, out of curiosity, I took out every book on Chinese cooking that they had on the shelf.  Our friend got very excited and, as he leafed through them, kept exclaiming "Oh!, I am so hungry!"  He pointed out each dish he was familiar with and explained when and why they eat it.  We have decided that, from now on, one day each week will be "Home Day" and I will learn to prepare a different Chinese dinner for each of these days.

Of the books we took from the library, our student's top choice was "The Complete Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking," by Kenneth Lo, Deh-ta Hsiung, Nancy Chi Ma, Mary Ma Stavonhagen, Julia Chi Cheng, and Kitty Sham (Octopus Books Limited, 1979).  It contains a lot of information about Chinese history and customs along with detailed instructions and wonderful pictures.  The pictures are especially important to someone new to English language and cooking terms.  We begin our culinary journey together this week, using this book as a guide.  I may never get to China but I am bound to understand their culture a little better as the journey continues, and our young friend may feel just a little less homesick. 

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