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Food’ Role in International Students Interaction Essay

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Updated: Apr 2nd, 2020

Paul Theroux, as noted above, values the benefits of seeing other cultures, preferably in depth and at great length. International study is seen as a similarly valuable experience by many families and students. If a major goal of international study is connection with another culture, this is not always achieved. Students may actually interact minimally with their host country’s culture (Brown).

A New Zealand study tried pairing international students with local peers to increase their comfort level, often around food-related activities (Campbell 221). Food often defines national identity or ethnicity, despite the increasing globalization of the food industry (Counihan and Van Esterik 7).

Food, thus, offers an interesting way to break down cultural barriers for international students and host students. In light of this, food and food-related activities could help colleges make the international study experience more meaningful for both host and international students.

This could have implications more widely than merely to the young adult participants. A generation of people thus experienced in “living with difference”, as Siapera expresses it, may be more competent at keeping the peace over the long run in a multicultural world (Siapera, Theories of Multiculturalism 58)

It seems, from observing other students, that studying abroad is expected to confer citizenship of the world. This constitutes a substantial investment in becoming comfortable with another culture. This also parallels what many travelers seek (Theroux 5). Families hope that the student will develop skills to enhance their life/career, or simply have an “enlightening” experience, as Paul Theroux put it, (Theroux 5). Colleges hope for a broadened perspective among local students, as well.

One of the greatest challenges to international students is achieving a successful connection to the culture of the country where they are studying. Insufficient language preparation, or different expectations about interpersonal behavior, can play a role.

Sometimes, “non-recognition” or “disrespect” is the prevailing attitude towards other cultures, as noted by Siapera, and can be a barrier to intercultural interaction (Siapera, Theories of Multiculturalism 59). Mere indifference on the host students’ part can be enough to inhibit full participation by international students in the host community (Brown).

To investigate this phenomenon, Lorraine Brown asked international students at an English college to document their activities over the first months of school. Brown categorizes several potential responses to an entirely foreign situation such as international study. Brown’s article details several general categories of responses to a strange culture.

Visiting students could cling to their own culture (mono-culturalism), reject their own culture (assimilationism), acquire a second culture (biculturalism), isolate themselves or be isolated (marginalization), or acquire several new cultures (multiculturalism) (Brown). (Host students could adopt the same responses) The students she observed used a coping strategy of forming strong bonds with co-nationals. These helped them to navigate the campus, the bureaucracy, the community around the campus, and similar challenges.

However, many of the international students ended up being isolated from the local students (Brown). They ate, socialized, recreated, and studied with their co-nationals. This meant that they were not practicing speaking English, or making friends with members of the host community, on-campus or off. It also probably meant that they were not getting the maximum possible out of their experience, or as much as their families might have wished.

Thus, as a coping strategy, clinging to others from the same area may be comforting but it may be counterproductive. Following their own inclinations, students may be isolated, or ghettoized with others from the same region of the world, and seldom interact with local schoolmates. Of additional relevance to this essay, food, according to this Brown’s article, served to help foreign students’ combat homesickness.

Food and food-related activities such as cooking, eating, and celebrating cultural holidays together was a way to express solidarity with co-nationals (Brown). In light of these findings, this essay suggests that the significance of food could perhaps be leveraged better by colleges to improve the experience of visiting students.

To address similar problems, on the other side of the globe in a New Zealand college, Nittaya Campbell assigned volunteer visiting students a local student mentor for several months (Campbell passim). During this time period, the mentor was supposed to keep in touch with the international student and engage in activities with them that would help them find their way in the college life.

This involved, as Campbell put it, activities that were “purely social (e.g., chatting over coffee, going to lunch, attending movies, having dinner, watching and playing sports) or task-oriented (e.g., helping with banking or shopping, showing where various facilities were on campus or in town).” (Campbell 209). Note how prominent the role of dining and food related behaviors was in this study.

These findings also support the notion that food-related activities could be used to help foreign students feel more at home with their new surroundings, and promote friendships between host country students and international students.

It is possible that in the future, the trend towards globalization (Siapera, Varieties of Multiculturalism 29) may affect in the growing, processing, and marketing of food products so much that it will smooth out all the differences in food habits between different national groups (Counihan and Van Esterik 7). Travelers and international students may all someday risk encountering food that is so entirely imported or generic that it is not clear in what way it expresses local identity (Counihan and Van Esterik 7).

For the moment, however, food remains an important feature of cultural identity, even in the United States, after decades of assimilationist effort (Siapera, Varieties of Multiculturalism 37). As Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik observe, “Food links body and soul, self and other, the personal and the political, the material and the symbolic. Moreover, as food shifts from being local and known, to being global and unknown, it has been transformed into a potential symbol of fear and anxiety” (Counihan and Van Esterik 2).

This anxiety is particularly troublesome for international students who must figure out what to order in restaurants, or, even more mysteriously, buy in grocery stores. There are all sorts of mistakes to make, even if one has basic command of the host country language1. Even edible foods can excite disgust if they do not fit cultural norms (Counihan and Van Esterik 4).2

Rather than isolating themselves in apprehension, alternatively, as this essay proposes, students could participate in an ongoing conversation about food, with local students, staff, local residents, and other international students. This could, of course, reduce the uncertainty around food in a foreign country.

Perhaps more importantly, this could open up other discussions about cultural differences and choices. The process could provide great practice in the host country language and perhaps allow local students to get to know international students and vice versa, as occurred in the New Zealand study, which is good for both groups of students (Campbell 223).

Both the scholarly investigations noted previously, and anecdotal observation, suggest that food is a natural choice for a topic around which to create cross-cultural interaction that is good for all participants. Every culture has a cuisine or at least a food tradition of some variety (Counihan and Van Esterik 2).

The food of a community reveals a great many things about that community’s culture. A culture’s religious traditions may, for example, be expressed in food avoidances and taboos. Religious holidays are marked by special foods, for example, the moon cake, or turkey with all the trimmings. People carry these ideas with them when they travel and study abroad (Brown).

As Counihan and Van Esterik point out, “food touches everything and is the foundation of every economy, marking social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions—an endlessly evolving enactment of gender, family, and community relationships” (Counihan and Van Esterik 3). Every traveler, every visitor to a new region, and even every person who explores an unfamiliar neighborhood has to eat. Offering food is a natural response to a guest from elsewhere.

Accepting food from the hand of the host is a quite natural response as well. Both actions are positive. For someone learning a second language, exploring and learning about unfamiliar foods strengthens language skills and teaches new and useful vocabulary (Campbell 209). These activities, what Siapera terms “‘prosaic,’ everyday encounters”, involving food, are among the “actual terrains within which cultural diversity exists and flourishes” as the following suggestions will demonstrate (Siapera, Theories of Multiculturalism 57).

Universities could make use of food-related activities to better incorporate their visiting scholars into the life of the campus. For example, colleges could designate certain tables as international tables, offering vouchers for some small item as an inducement for local students to sit with international students. Another technique would be to sponsor special events to educate host students about the cultures of international students, featuring food, art, music, dance, and presentations by international students and faculty at the college dining hall.

Dorms could sponsor outings to ethnic restaurants, where the international students would (for once) be in the position of experts. Although the logistics would be challenging, local students could be assisted to invite international students home for holiday or weekend meals (perhaps with transportation assistance).

This would allow an authentic and un- “mediated” perspective on the host culture, and provide opportunities for discussing issues and questions (about food and other items) not as easily addressed in a dormitory, refectory, or restaurant (Siapera, Theories of Multiculturalism 47). Faculty living on-campus could be encouraged to bring together international and local students in their homes.

As in Campbell’s study, some sort of motivational assistance (extra academic or community service credit, perhaps) would help students to “step outside their comfort zone” (Campbell 223). As in the New Zealand Buddy project, journaling about any such food-oriented cross-cultural experience promotes language acquisition and writing skills (Campbell 224). Reflective writing about the experience of sharing food-related activities across cultures would also encourage articulation of personal attitudes and beliefs.

Many people hold attitudes about other people from other cultures that they have never expressed in words. The way that other cultures are treated differs from country to country, as noted by Siapera (Siapera, Varieties of Multiculturalism 45, and passim). Thus, any use of food to increase cross-cultural interaction in a college setting would thus always need to be tailored to the attitudes of the host nation.

However, given that everyone eats, colleges and universities could exploit this simple necessity of life to give students an authentic experience of each other, rather than the less valid “transparent” and “mediated” experience provided by the global media. A genuine experience of other cultures can reduce the tendency to categorize other cultures in what Siapera terms “stereotypical” fashion (Siapera, Theories of Multiculturalism 58).

Acquiring realistic perspectives on other cultures rather than stereotypical ones could help people to relate to one another more as individuals rather than cardboard characters with only two-dimensions. This cannot help but prepare students for further successful cross-cultural interactions. International study is already a costly investment, but it has the potential to be even more important to the world’s future.

Colleges have the chance to develop and train a competently multicultural age cohort, ready to make and keep peace in the world. With so many hopes pinned on it, any reasonable strategy to increase multicultural competence, including using a simple item like food to increase cross-cultural interaction, seems thoroughly justified.

Hannah Arendt, as quoted by Eugenia Siapera, likens the media to a “table across which we sit” saying of it that it “connects us but also keeps us apart” in that “it simultaneously relates each of us to others, and keeps us separate as individuals because we are uniquely positioned in our seat on the table” (Siapera, Theories of Multiculturalism 58).

Dining together, sharing food, and explaining ourselves through our food traditions can be literally and metaphorically, a table that need not separate people from one another and can promote a more peaceful world.

Works Cited

Brown, Lorraine. “.” 2009. Science Direct. Web.

Campbell, Nittaya. “.” Journal of Studies in International Education 16.3 (2012): 205-227. Web.

Counihan, Carole and Penny Van Esterik. . Florence: Routledge, 2008. Web.

Siapera, Eugenia. “Theories of Multiculturalism.” Siapera, Eugenia. Cultural Diversity and Global Media. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2010. 46-59. Print.

Siapera, Eugenia. “Varieties of Multiculturalism.” Cultural Diversity and Global Media. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2010. 29-45. Print.

Theroux, Paul. “Why We Travel.” New York Times 1 April 2011. Print.


1 For example, how would someone know the difference in appropriate use of coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut cream, without opening and tasting/smelling/observing the product’s characteristics?

2 International students can, like one Nigerian schoolmate, strictly limit their purchases of food prepared by others to, for example, French fries. In this instance, this restriction was based on their belief that they could see and know what went into the dish of French fries, and recognized all the ingredients as being familiar. For students who do not limit themselves this way, every food purchase can be scary and off-putting.

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