When I was told I was heading off to China with Centennial College as part of their FLIP (Faculty-Led International Program), I couldn’t believe it. I’ve had a fascination with China and its cuisine for a long time but I always thought it would always remain an aspiration of mine instead of, now, an experience I could speak to.
I went into this experience with little to no expectations so as for challenges I might face, I went with the mentality that I’ll be able to figure out whatever problem I encountered. The language was the first obvious foresighted challenge but as soon as our Centennial College Suzhou peers met us at the Shanghai Airport, and greeted us in English, I was relieved. The students are all very motivated to learn English and we were more than happy to help them with any translations. There are also lots of great phone apps out there that helped when we found we were at a dead end. Even negotiating for some items in a store, I found myself typing in what I wanted in English into the salesperson’s phone and coming to a final number that way.
The days were spent in the cooking lab, learning a new Chinese cooking technique and dish and in the afternoons we learned all about Chinese Culture and Arts. Some days we skipped the classroom altogether and toured around the beautiful city of Suzhou.
We began with an introduction to Chinese cooking by learning about the different types of cuisines, knife skills (using a traditional clever knife), and food matching techniques. Some of the regions and dishes we learned to prepare were: Jiaozi (Dumplings) and Suzhou style cuisine Stir-fry shredded eel and squirrel-shaped mandarin fish. Huaiyang Style cuisine like the large meatball and Sichuan style cuisine such as spicy diced chicken with peanuts and boiled fish with pickled cabbage and chili.
Culture classes were a lot of fun because we got to take our work home with us which made for great souvenirs! The topics covered in our Chinese culture classes included: Chinese diet, cuisines, language, traditional martial arts, paper-cutting, brush painting and calligraphy, Chinese festivals and Chinese knotting, Chinese tea culture, history and tea party cuisine, Chinese Arts and Opera Mask Making. We also turned the tables by giving our Chinese peers a presentation and hands-on lesson on western cooking, cuisine and culture.
I have never been so well fed than I was in Suzhou–we were constantly eating and discovering new foods. The meals we had in groups were often served family style but we ate everything on one tiny plate each and with chopsticks. Personally, I loved this set up because it meant I could try many varieties of dishes in one seating. The cost of food was also really low so a standard Chinese feast would work out to $10 CDN each person. A few other notable experiences included Traditional Hot Pot and exploring at the local food markets.
We spent a lot of time touring with our head Chef instructor and the other Chinese students. Some of the beautiful sights that we visited included: PingJiang historical blocks, Suzhou museum, Suzhou City wall museum, Jinji Lake, Shantang street, Dushu Lake, The Wang Sen International College, karaoke and other fun nightlife and lastly we spent our day off in Shanghai.
We also visited many famous food markets which was an amazing cultural experience. There were so many amazing sights and delicacies to excite the mind and palate. Between snapping photos and trying food, I looked like a chicken with my head cut off (no pun intended!)
Suzhou is called “Venice of the East” and when we visited PingJiang Historical Blocks, we made sure to go on a beautiful river boat ride, a must while visiting Suzhou, where the rowers sang traditional songs from the Suzhou region. It was beautiful to listen to the music as we headed down the calm waterway.
Jinji Lake is also one of my favourite spots in Suzhou. There are hardly any lights on the pathway to the shore of the lake but when we arrived, the skyline was shining bright and beautifully through the dark sky.
Shantang Street was also very memorable and I can still feel its energy. Here, we walked the paper lantern lit streets, sampled local delicacies, admired the beautifully lit canals and explored the many shops.
Besides being a lively and energetic city, Suzhou is also very lush and beautiful. One of the Chinese students, Adonis, said “it’s always Spring in Suzhou–there are always flowers!” as we walked through the flower market. The streets are lined with meticulously groomed, lush green trees and bushes and just as Adonis said, flowers are everywhere! While we were there in mid-May, there was a lot of rain but that didn’t stop us and it also meant the flowers busted into bloom. The scent of flowers followed us around as we explored.
I learned a great deal about myself while I was away from my family. When I was taken out of my element, away from the familiar, I still had this burning passion for exploration and thirst for knowledge. I learned to let go of any anxieties and fully enjoy everything this incredible experience had to offer. I missed out on some sleep and I ate some things that would scare the average foodie but I came home with incredible memories, experiences and really great friends. My experience in Suzhou with Centennial College is now at the top of my list for one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had.