What’s Wrong with Food and Flags?
When it comes to language learning and intercultural communication, “food and flags” have a pretty bad reputation. The thinking goes that talking about food or the flags of countries is too shallow. Treating food and flags as sufficient representations for cultures is just not enough to do any place justice. While I support wanting more rigor for language and cultural education, I think that maybe food has gotten short-changed as a topic for the classroom (I’ll leave flags for another time). Students can definitely learn something about a culture through food, while learning the language at the same time.
Teachers who are not from the cultures that they teach about have to admit that we are not in charge of what that culture thinks is important. Even if you are from a culture whose language you teach, you have to admit that not everyone has to agree with you about what is important :). Food is a huge part of Chinese culture. It’s integral to the major holidays. It is medicine. It is how friends and family members show affection. To say that food is a shallow topic for China rather misses the point.
An Example of Food and Flags Done Better
“Is this Chinese food?” is a lesson that I have done with adult students. I would also do a version with kids, but perhaps a shorter version. In this class, I show the students photos of different foods and ask, is this Chinese food? Most of the photos are in fact, photos of foods that you can easily find in China. Many of them, however, are not foods that come to mind when students think of “Chinese food.”
The language used in this class is very basic. There are only a few phrases and words that the students need for the whole hour-long class. This is really great for beginner/novice students because they only need to know how to say “是” or “不是” in order to participate. They could also just nod their heads or do a thumbs up or a thumbs down too.
The class also works for students who have more knowledge of Chinese. The class, like any good immersion-style class, is really about the content. Just because a student has a good knowledge about the Chinese language does not mean that they know everything about the country or the culture. It is also a good chance for those who may not have strong language skills, but know a lot about the place, to show off what they know.
Food as a Gateway to More
The slides that I show the students are mostly of foods that are commonly found in China. The takeaway of the lesson is that there are many foods in China, such as corn on the cob, egg tarts, kebabs, that students might not think of as Chinese food, but actually are. Their presence and popularity in China alludes to stories from history, trade and the Chinese multi-ethic state. Not too shallow, right?
More on teaching Chinese culture:
For anyone who is interested, here are some photos of flags made out of their nation’s famous foods.