The Columns

Learning on the Fly: Laura Wang and Natalie Dabrowski

— by on October 5th, 2016

“It’s nice to meet other people with an interest in China. It was such a fresh experience for me.”

— Laura Wang

Eight Washington and Lee University students spent a portion of summer 2016 overseas in a collaboration that pairs American and international students for projects and service work in the international students’ home countries.

The program, which is funded by part of a $219,000 grant from the Endeavor Foundation (formerly known as the Christian A. Johnson Foundation) is in its second year. This year found students working with refugees in Greece and Germany, and studying the culture of food and film in China.

Laura Wang and Natalie Dabrowski traveled to Laura’s home country, China, to research food and restaurant trends.

Laura Wang ’19 and Natalie Dabrowski ’19
“Food and Modernizing Culture in Guangzhou, China”

How did you settle on your Endeavor project theme?

Natalie: Laura and I were talking about food culture one night — she misses Chinese food when she is here. We started to wonder how common it is to find other regional Chinese foods in Guangzhou. As they try to standardize the language and culture, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It is not good if it comes at the cost of culture. A lot of these arts and traditions are being lost.

Laura: My city is the best food city in China. However, I feel that both the Cantonese language and a lot of Cantonese traditions are disappearing. I was trying to figure out how much real Cantonese food can be found in different districts with all of the other foods coming in, and how well each district preserves Cantonese food.

How did you go about conducting the project when you got to China?

Natalie: Each day, we took the subway around the city and took pictures of restaurant fronts, because we figured that’s the best way to see what type of restaurant it was and to see the signage. If it was something of note, we wrote it down.

Laura: We counted how many restaurants there are, and how many of those are Chinese restaurants. Then we noted how many of those are Cantonese restaurants, and looked at what the Cantonese food restaurants had on the menu.

How would you summarize your findings?

Natalie: In China, there are a lot more little family restaurants tucked into little shopping centers or street sides. Many of them have been there a long time. A lot are Cantonese, but many are more general cuisine.

Laura: Small restaurants in street sides in the two traditional old districts have a lot of featured Cantonese, and lots of those have been there more than 20 years. I feel that even though people in Guangzhou actually go eat in big shopping malls a lot, those unnoticeable street restaurants are the places that preserve the taste of Cantonese best.

Did anything about your findings surprise you?

Natalie: I was surprised by the variety of foods we found — not only many different Chinese dishes from different regions but also many foods from across Asia. The variety was really quite amazing and very diverse.

Laura: I was surprised to find Beijing roasted duck on a traditional Cantonese menu!

What is the next stage for your project?

Natalie: We’d like to create a presentation about our findings, with a particular focus on the photos we took in order to better relate our findings to audiences back at W&L.

Laura: We want to create a presentation where we talk about the restaurants, and introduce real Chinese food.

Natalie, what did you think of China during your first visit to the country?

I’d never been, so it was really exciting. And I actually got to visit Japan just before I traveled to China. It was incredibly valuable as an American, getting to visit both Japan and China in such a short time frame. We have such a limited perspective of Asia, and particularly China. But it’s such a diverse place that is interesting to learn about. There’s so much culture, and I think people in the U.S. tend to be unaware of it.

Laura, did you enjoy introducing Natalie to your homeland?

Yes. I told her a lot about my city before we went — everything I love about it. It made her so pumped. While we were there, my mom was able to help Natalie practice her Chinese. It’s nice to meet other people with an interest in China. It was such a fresh experience for me. When we talk about China to foreigners, people think of Beijing or Shanghai. Not many people know there is a third big city in China. It’s actually a really attractive city, and the food is really good!

Favorite experience of the trip?

Natalie: Being able to see all the beautiful landmarks in Guangzhou all lit up at night — it was a really lovely end to my trip and something I’ll never forget.

Laura: I got to go to those old streets in the Liwan district (not my home district) and had the taste of authentic Cantonese food. Because I barely went there before, I don’t know when I would have had the opportunity to try those foods without the inspiration of this project.