Chinese and Food

  • Learning
Spencer Baron, Upper Division Chinese Teacher

Having been a student of Chinese language myself, I understand how fun certain topics can be. I remember learning to introduce myself, or the first time I was able to share a narrative story with my class. When it comes to having fun learning Chinese, there is no better topic than food. Chinese food culture arguably one of the most diverse in the world. Each region of China has its own regional cuisine that had been created originally based on what grows there geographically. Today, you can go to most big cities in China and find Chinese food from many different areas of China.

When I learned about Chinese food, we made dumplings and went to a Chinese restaurant. I thought, “I have to teach my students to cook some Chinese food and we have to go out to eat together.” I gleaned a lot of inspiration from doing these things, but I didn’t learn much from them. I needed to figure out a way to comprehensively teach a food unit while still making it fun and inspiring.

The importance of learning names of foods in Chinese is relevant, but grammatically limited if only learned for the sake of knowing the names of things. We began our lesson by exploring how food affects people. Students wrote narratives from their own lives about the feelings induced by food. We read them aloud in class and amazed each other with the beauty with which my students articulated their touching, sad, joyful and awkward stories centered on food. Students then told the stories of other students to the class and were able to capture the feelings of others quite accurately. It’s amazing how stories can be remembered as long as they are told well the first time.

Assignments like these allowed us to accumulate a wide breadth of food-relevant vocabulary. I used this vocabulary as a backdrop to teach the grammatical structure associated with instructions. This grammar, infamously known as the 把字句 (bǎ zì jù), is among the most difficult in foundational Chinese because nothing really resembles it in English. I scaffolded the teaching of this grammar by guiding students through how to pull noodles. We all got to do this in class and had a great time getting our hands dirty. (Unfortunately, we were all covered in flour and oil, so we couldn’t take pictures.) I then tasked the students to use this grammar in instructional videos to make their own cooking shows. Students were able to grasp this grammar relatively quickly when they applied it to their own lives. It is in the application that one’s Chinese sinks deep into your essence and never leaves you. Students presented their cooking shows in class. We had pancakes, breakfast sandwiches, cake, pudding and many other foods, and all the while, students were giving instructions using 把. We had a lot of laughs watching these videos.

Our final food-based challenge was to learn proper etiquette while ordering food. We learned the dance that one does in China when ordering food at a restaurant, as there are differences from American restaurant customs. Afterward, I scouted out a Chinese restaurant in the area with authentic Chinese food, a Chinese menu and a wait staff that speaks Mandarin Chinese. We walked over during class and had an all-Chinese outing. Students had prepared discussion topics for the table and we ate a beautiful family-style lunch. Students learned how to order in a large group, and we all shared our meal.

That lunch brought many things to our class. We applied our newfound Chinese skills to have conversations with Chinese people; got a taste of the necessary soft skills required when interacting in a restaurant setting (in Chinese); and connected our class in a way that can only be done through the binding power of sharing a meal.

  • 10th Grade
  • 9th Grade
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Upper Division
  • Upper Grades Program