Olivia’s Cambridge Diary

Food friendship with Chinese classmates


A spontaneous decision, fuelled by the need to find a better work-life balance, led me to a house party just north of Jesus Green. Upon arriving, I gravitate towards a friendly-looking Chinese student in the corner of the kitchen.

His face is flushed pink from beer so when I start speaking Chinese to my new friend he is rather thrilled. His name is Bingwen (Bing) and he’s studying for a PhD in Biotechnology at Churchill College. Originally from Hangzhou, Bing spent much of his childhood in Shanghai, so we bond over discussing Shanghai steamed crab and Zhongshan Park, which I recently spent a year living nearby.

In a room of around 30 (often intoxicated) PhD students, Bing is the only Chinese. He laughs when I tell him it’s a shame there are so few, as I know the Chinese are good at partying when they want to. He explains that for many of his Chinese classmates, the thought of going to a house party (especially on a weekday) is ludicrous. Not only would the loud and rowdy setting be off-putting but decoding the British lingo, with its idioms and dialects, is so much harder that it’s barely worth the effort.

A couple of weeks pass and we finally arrange to meet for dinner. My sister, who is unfamiliar with the Chinese, is visiting for the weekend. Bing decides to take us to a favourite place for Chinese students just opposite St John’s College: Hong Kong Fusion. He validates his decision as a “half-way house” between Western and Chinese food for my sister. We end up ordering an array of Chinese dishes, including fish ball noodle soup, king prawn fried noodle, pineapple rice and garlic broccoli.

The row of tables opposite us are enjoying hot pot; an international demographic giggle in unison as the Chinese members of the group teach the not-so-familar how to use chopsticks. To our right is a young Chinese couple enjoying only meat dishes. They eat at a million miles an hour bouncing complex physics terminology between one another in between the Chinese dialogue.

Bing professes he’s the best cook he knows. The only son of parents who are “not very business-like”, he reflects happily on his childhood, which he says revolved around cooking dinner with his parents after school. But when asked if he had to choose between settling in Cambridge or China, Bing says he would choose Cambridge without a moment’s hesitation.

The main reason being that whenever he gets the chance to spend the holidays in China (once a year if he is lucky, due to restricted finances), his aunt will guilt-trip him into spending hours of his time with his cousins in preparation for the gaokao [the Chinese college entrance exam], in the hope that he can help them follow in his footsteps.

Bing rolls his eyes and says he has more freedom and personal independence when he is in Cambridge.

Due to the scholarship Bing is on (he preferred not to say which one), he is obliged to spend a year working in China upon graduation from Cambridge. He must also write a bi-annual review of his academic progress. In fact there is an abundance of funding available to Chinese students in the UK, some of which includes the Great Britain-China Educational Trust (GBCET), GREAT Scholarships, financial backing from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) and grants from other charities such as the Henry Lester Trust. Without such funding, Bing says he wouldn’t have been able to do his PhD here.

Before parting, Bing invites me for dinner at his home. He lives with an Italian and they like to make Chinese, Italian fusion-food together. The thought of Chinese cabbage on pizza doesn’t sit well in my already bloated stomach. But Bing laughs at my reaction and says we’ll try to work our way through all the Chinese restaurants in Cambridge before the end of the year. “There are, like, 30 of them!” he beams.

UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge University.

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