Searching for Kimchi

Adjusting to American college food can be hard on international students

By Kaori Hatama

Seung Ah Bae and three other friends started their way to the Bryn Mawr R100 SEPTA station on Friday evening carrying big backpacks and bags that were nearly empty..
“It’s going to be packed on our way back,” said Bae a Bryn Mawr College freshman from Korea.
Riding the R100 for 20 minutes, they got off at the 69st St. Terminal and walked a couple of minutes until they finally reached H-Mart, a Korean supermarket in Upper Darby, which borders Philadelphia..
Normally, there would be fruits, vegetables and bread stacked near the entrance of a supermarket, but not at H-Mart. Here, the entrance is filled with stacks of rice instead. The smell of kimchi, the spicy Korean cabbage dish, is also obvious after passing through the automatic doors into the supermarket.
“Let’s eat first before shopping,” said Bae, hopping on the escalator to a second-floor food court.

Fish on display at the Upper Darby H-Mart

Fish on display at the Upper Darby H-Mart

“We always sit here,” said Bae settling to the table nearest to one of the shops. After looking through the menus, Bae stood up and headed to one of the shops. She switched her language to Korean and ordered traditional Korean food with rice.
“We really miss rice,” said Bae. “That’s why we come here and eat on weekends.”
Adjusting to the food is one of the challenges freshmen face in adjusting to their new life at college. And it’s doubly true for international students, who grew up with their countries’ traditional food and have to adjust to a new country, a new school and a new diet.
Take rice as an example, one of the staples in Asian cuisine. Haffner, one of the dining halls at Bryn Mawr, offers specialty food bars that this semester includes Japanese food. Some international students say they eat at Haffner because it offers steamed Japanese rice at the Japanese bars. Others say the rice at Haffner is not the ‘authentic’ rice that they grew up with.
“That’s why we go out and buy some food,” said Noory O, another freshman from Korea.

Hard to keep Halal
Religion is another problem as well. Nuzhat Arif, a freshman from Bangladesh, freaked out at first because she did not know what to eat. As a Muslim, she is used to eating Halal food. Halal is an Islamic law, which specifies certain food, which can and cannot be eaten. The food also needs to be cooked in a certain way as well.
“I used to feel bad about eating non-Halal food,” said Arif. “When I talked to my mom, she said it is okay and think about God and eat it. I am not that religious but certain things you want to maintain and I never had Harram, non-Halal food, before. Now, I think of God and eat them.”
International students follow the same patterns in adjusting to the food at Bryn Mawr.. When they first come to the college, they try every type of food in the dining halls. Often it is food that they have never eaten before.
“For at least a month, I ate whatever I wanted — dessert, junks, and chicken,” said Pragya Kishna, a freshman from India. “I normally don’t eat a lot of non-vegetarian food but here, I’ve been eating non-vegetarian food everyday because it’s the dining hall.”
“I tried every dessert in the dining hall in my freshman year,” said Yufan Wang, a junior from China.

Packing on the pounds
As a result of eating everything, they usually gain weight.
“I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes last year,” said Kristel Tan, referring to her freshman year. “When I went back home for Christmas people were like ‘Wow, can I roll you down the street?'” said Tan.
Alessandra Malvestio, who is from Italy, said most international students gain weight because they try out everything that they did not have the chance to eat back in their country.
“There is so much more variety and flavor than you are used to that you just want to try everything,” said Malvestio.
After the first semester of trying all the new food, they find themselves missing the traditional meals they had back home. Some students like Kishna have some ground rules to stay healthy. She did not realize how traditional Indian plates, which consist of flat bread, portion of vegetables, lentils and salad, was healthy for her. She figured out some food in the
dining halls would work as the replacement for her these traditional plates.
Others like Bae and Tan go out for shopping or bring food from their country.

Stocking up at home

I bring food from home,” said Tan. “I go home with one suitcase of clothes and an empty suitcase, which I stuff with 50 pounds of instant noodles and canned goods.” Because she had gained weight during her freshman year by trying to stuff her stomach, she tries to stay with what she has been used to. She has a rice cooker and cooks rice for herself and said she rarely goes to the dining halls.
Malvestio also tries to control herself by eating healthy food with no desserts on weekdays and she treats herself with American junk food on the weekends. Because she lives off campus in an apartment, she sometimes shops at the Italian market in Philly and cooks pasta and vegetables for herself.
How did the shopping at H-Mart go?
Their cart was filled with cooked rice, which can be eaten after microwaving, instant noodles, Asian snacks like rice crackers and kimchi, and tea. Bae and her friends each spent about $50 that day. After paying their items, they stuffed the food in their backpacks, but there was too much to fit. They ended up each carrying two plastic bags in hand.
“See it’s full,” laughed Bae pointing at her stuffed bag.

One thought on “Searching for Kimchi

  1. As a student once myself I also faced a little trouble when it comes to adapting to the local taste at the place where I was doing my study. I suffer a slight migrain and naussea for almost a week during my first day, not because the food was bad, but my body somehow is rejecting it. But it was a great experience and I begin to learn to love it.


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