The HNC in DC: Students build community over a hearty lunch

The HNC in DC: Students build community over a hearty lunch

In January, several Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) students who are living in the DC area were able to meet up for a quick lunch break. Certificate student Eljoy Tanos reflects on this special moment during the ongoing pandemic that has resulted in a virtual learning environment and prevented many classmates from meeting. 

For many people, the end of December is spent celebrating holidays and the new year. However, for students at the HNC, the first two weeks of January are spent worrying about papers, exams, and presentations. While taking classes from the comfort of my home is convenient, this arrangement has also made it harder to differentiate between my “studying” and “resting” spaces. After going through the first half of my exams, I was starting to feel burnt out. As I read through pages of articles about “copycat culture” (shanzhai wenhua), my phone vibrated with a WeChat notification. A text was sent to the group chat for HNC students in the DC area. Someone had just suggested an in-person meeting. 
Another text appears: “How does Wednesday lunch sound?”

The Day of the Meeting
On a Wednesday after the first snow of the year, we decided to meet up at a Chinese restaurant in DC called Da Hong Pao. This restaurant is famous for its dim sum, which is perfect to warm up our tired souls and minds. Since I have not taken classes with most of the students living in the DC area, this meeting was my first interaction with some of my fellow HNC-ers. While I was excited to eat delicious dim sum, I was even more excited to see other HNC students, not as Wechat text-bubbles or Zoom windows, but as their life-size selves.

After entering the restaurant, a man checked my temperature by scanning my forehead. Shortly after, he allowed me inside and I quickly spotted the others. I was the last to arrive, so I sheepishly introduced myself while trying not to break the conversation that they were having. The waiter handed us the menu and we asked for tea before she left. We quickly decided on our order before the waiter came back with our tea.

Since this was our first meeting, I suggested an icebreaker game. We would first go around the table and list three things we did in the past five years. Then, each of us would try to guess how old the others are. I proposed this game because of my own curiosity. Since I had just finished my undergraduate studies when starting at the HNC, I was used to learning with students of similar ages. So, after enrolling as an HNC student, I was amazed at how diverse the student body is. Each one of us came from different walks of life, with different academic and professional experiences. For instance, this semester I took classes with students who have professional experience in NGOs, students with research experience in environmental sustainability, and students who are very familiar with international law. The HNC students I was meeting at the restaurant were no different. One student was already married, another was moving into his third apartment alone, and two (including myself) had only just received our bachelor degrees.

Group Reflection of the Semester
Our first batch of food consisted of boiled cabbage, pan-fried turnip cakes, chicken feet with black bean sauce, and pork and shrimp shumai. As we enjoyed and bonded over our love of Chinese cuisines, we shared our experiences at the HNC so far.

Due to travel restrictions, international HNC students were unfortunately unable to go to Nanjing and take classes in person. From my perspective, many students started the semester optimistically. The HNC administration kept students updated on developments regarding travel restrictions and welcomed student participation in creating contingency plans in the case that traveling to China did not work out. In addition, professors tried to alter their curriculums to be more compatible with online learning. 

However, during our conversation, we also discussed the struggles we faced throughout the semester. For example, we pointed out a cultural difference that we noticed between Chinese professors and their international counterparts. Specifically, when giving out essay assignments, Chinese professors often gave no further instruction than the required length. Since many of us experienced the American education system where teachers give assignments with many specific requirements, we mistook this new experience as HNC professors giving unclear instructions. In fact, this was simply an example of cultural differences in the US and China’s education systems. Our professors did not intend to give us more anxiety over their assignments by giving unclear requirements. Instead, they realized that students came from different educational and professional backgrounds. For them, making students conform to a specific citation style or requiring students to find a certain number of sources are less important than encouraging students to showcase their depth of understanding.

After ordering our second batch of dishes, we continued our conversations beyond the HNC. We ordered some pork belly, vegetable dumplings, pan-fried turnip cake, some more shumai (my favorite) and a few pineapple buns.

One thing I realized from this meeting was how much virtual learning has impacted my social behavior. Since the start of the semester, I began to get used to solving things on my own and keeping most of my academic worries to myself. After spending so much time in my room, I started forgetting how important and useful communicating with my classmates is. Seeing my fellow HNC-ers for lunch has reminded me how exciting it is to interact with fellow students. Not only were we able to share and validate our worries but we were also able to become closer by sharing our live experiences with each other. Meeting in person allowed us to enjoy some joyful moments amid our exam weeks. It certainly was a nice way to recharge and gave me a push to finish the semester strong.

I am optimistic that travel restrictions will loosen as the condition of our society gets better. However, in the meantime, I plan to be more proactive in inviting classmates to video calls and reaching out to the students in DC for some tea or hotpot breaks.