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Friday, 3 January 2014

International Culture Night at the ISU

The International Space University, ISU, where I am currently studying, is well known for its "3Is": International, Interdisciplinary, and Intercultural. My current class of 40 students, has students representing around 30 different cultures. It has been an interesting and exciting experience finding out more about their cultures.

The ISU encourages this interaction and has asked its students to arrange "culture nights", where specific cultures have the opportunity to share some of its traditions, food, and culture through presentation and food. The first culture night we had was very successful, and we were treated to the food, music, and perspectives of Puerto Rico, Catalonia (a province within Spain), and Venezuela.

For the second culture night, the ISU students awaited the cultures of China, France, and Canada! We were all really excited, especially the Canadians as we were being visited by Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk!

There are three Canadian students this year at the ISU, including myself. True to Canada's "culture of cultures", we come from a variety of backgrounds. My family is fourth generation Canadian, coming originally from Polish, Dutch, and Scotch/Irish descent. Alix's family is from Canada and Jamaica, and Michio is French-Canadian and Japanese. I find Michio's history quite interesting as his third language was English, after French and Japanese.

Working separately, but bringing our ideas together, the three of us created a presentation worthy of representing our country. The most difficult part of creating this presentation was in trying to ensure that Canada was properly represented. While every country can claim a diversity of people and traditions, one thing I really wanted to explain to my fellow students was how spread out and diverse Canada can be.

When people think of Canada, they think of snow and cold winters. They might think of hockey and maple syrup, but that's usually as far as they go. Most know that Canada is a big place, but they fail to realize how big. I have heard people say they wished to visit British Columbia and Toronto in the same trip, failing to realize that it's an eight hour flight between them!

Europeans often have a difficult time understanding this, seeing as though a two hour trip through many parts of Europe can take you through 3 countries. My sister had a friend from university over for Thanksgiving, a friend from France, and her friend was really confused by how far away everything is. Now, in her defense, my family lives, by car, 1.5 hours away from Ottawa, and 4 hours from Toronto. So, it is understandable to think that we live in the "middle of nowhere" because, well, we do.

However, much of Canada is like this, vast rural areas with a few modest cities here and there. I wanted to make this very clear to my fellow students so they could understand the variety of cultures, issues, and natural splendor which should separate us but actually unites us Canadians.

The presentation went well, comprising some funny videos, some Powerpoint slides, and good old-fashioned Canadian humour, yes, spelled with a 'u'.

One of my favourite moments occurred just before the presentation began. Dressed in what I called "Canadian Spring gear", with toque, scarf, gloves, and jacket, I was making my way to the stage when Dr. Thirsk said, "Get out of here, you hoser!"

Barely slowing my stride, I turned back and said, "Take off, eh!" Unbeknownst to many of my classmates, I had just had a very Canadian cultural exchange with an astronaut. I mean, I told an astronaut to take off! How funny is that? Still makes me laugh as I sit here writing it, weeks later. And in case you're not familiar with the reference, here is a related Bob and Doug McKenzie skit from Second City TV.

The presentation went well, everyone laughing and loving it, and then on to the food! The Chinese started things off with a stir fry, with helpings of fish and rice, while my fellow Canadians made some smoked salmon on a bagel, pancakes with maple syrup, and mac 'n cheese (macaroni pasta and cheese). Our French classmate provided us with some French staples, cheese and wine, from the region, of course.

While this food was being served, the Chinese continued their work in the kitchen, preparing dumplings, while I worked on Shepherd's pie. Interestingly, I was informed by the UK student that it should be in fact deemed "Cottage Pie", as Shepherd's pie has lamb in it, and I was making it with beef.

All through the evening, I heard everyone talk about their excitement for the Chinese dumplings. Their anticipation was so great that I thought my meal would pass relatively unnoticed, which would have been fine, really. I was actually timing my meal to be presented as something to tide everyone over until the dumplings arrived, haha.

I was surprised to find myself ambushed soon after my pie was done. As soon as I pulled it out of the oven, one student Bonnie said, "You know, there is a saying in China: whoever is closest, gets first want some!"

Before I had even put it down, the Chinese students had ambushed me with plates and cutlery. After satisfying them, I assured them there would be more but insisting upon putting it out for everyone to enjoy, I moved past them, around the party and placed it down on Canada's table.

I didn't announce it. I didn't make a show of it, but once again, I was surrounded. As soon as I put the dish down, I was unable to back away from the table, as students had blocked me from all sides. Insisting that I eat this all the time and that I wanted to get away, I had to weave and gently elbow my way out.

I don't know why, but in the last 6 months or so, I have become quite nervous when it comes to feeding other people. While I can cook, and have quite a bit of time and experience in the kitchen, the truth is that I don't like the anxiety which can take place when I'm cooking for people. I think this has been because I get nervous cooking for people who have different eating habits than myself. My roommate is vegetarian, I am not, so cooking for her is nerve-wracking. I like Shepherd's pie, had no idea if the other students did, so cooking that was anxiety-driven. It's something I'm working on, and will likely be less of a problem over time, but I was very glad that my worries were, once again, for nothing.

Bob Thirsk must have felt like a movie star as, despite everyone's reluctance to impose on him, he signed autographs for everyone.

With Canadian music like The Barenaked Ladies and The Tragically Hip playing on the speakers, and food all around, the evening passed extremely smoothly and enjoyably. I've been enjoying the culture nights at the ISU and hoped you enjoyed our little tour together.

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