This past Saturday, Nov. 3, Vassar’s various Asian-identifying student organizations erected food booths in the College Center for the Night Market event hosted by the Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA). Setting up and running a food booth is no easy feat; choosing foods, calculating prices, handling funds and coordinating helpers and cooking utensils are just a few of the myriad responsibilities. With all of these duties and the work that went into the Night Market event, it’s worth asking: What makes recreating a night market at Vassar rewarding? What is the significance of serving ethnic food?
Before even getting into the specifics of the different foods offered, it’s important to consider the overarching night market framework itself. Night markets, also known as open-air markets, were first recorded in China as far back as 1,400 years ago. They are now cultural mainstays in many corners of the globe, such as Taiwan and Indonesia (University of Hawai’i Press, “Hot and noisy: Taiwan’s night market culture,” 2004). As a result, some Vassar students, particularly those identified as Asian, feel an intimate connection with night markets.
For ASA Vice President Tammy Wang ’21, Taiwanese night markets, like her favorite Ruifen night market in the Zuoying District, are special experiences bursting with rich, vibrant flavors of daily life. She shared via an emailed statement, “Ruifeng night markets in Taiwan are usually held every night from six to midnight—if you were to close you yes while standing amidst a sea full of people, you’d hear loud conversations from high school students talking about their day at school, couples ordering stinky tofu and oyster omelettes, and parents asking their children what candy they want to buy.” Wang sees the night market not only as a cultural concept, but also as an evocative and intimate memory.
In a similar vein, ASA Treasurer Johnson Lin ’21 associates night markets with the feeling of adventure, on which he reflected via email: “It’s not the same sense as you would get exploring a new place or hiking feeling of adventure. It’s more like an excitement of getting to eat new foods that I was sure was going to be delicious.” Wang’s and Lin’s personal accounts illustrate how the night market inspires the imagination in a way that food merely sitting on a plate cannot. It is no wonder that students toil so much to recreate this evocative atmosphere.
That being said, food, even just sitting on a plate, can represent complex abstractions. Home, community, culture and politics are a number of such concepts that food brings to the table (the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” food and travel series attests to this). A small mass of boiled or steamed dough with some combination of vegetables or animal meat inside, which we call a dumpling, can signify home.
This is the case for Katherine Niu ’20, whose family is from a northeastern region of China, which strongly identifies with dumplings. In the comfort of her dorm room, she told me, “I always ate [dumplings] growing up … [my parents] know how to make really good dumplings. I always grew up watching them do all the steps—it’s always a big process…I feel like food is such an important part of community—eating is a social activity and an act of love. It’s about sharing and bringing friends and family together.”
For the Mixed/Biracial Student Alliance (MBSA), their decision to make mango smoothies, alongside Spam Musubi (Japanese-Hawaiian) and Brigadeiro (Brazilian) was similarly symbolic, as MBSA President Zahra Crim ’20 explained over e-mail. Crim wrote, “The menu was representative of members of our Organizing Board and our ethnic backgrounds. We chose mango specifically because it is the central fruit of ethnic diasporas.”
Based on Niu’s and Crim’s experiences, food is fundamental to identifying an “us,” whether that be a family, community or identity, and can trace back to the roots of people far removed from their home cultures. These culinary connections between the concrete and the abstract inspire Vassar students to celebrate their cuisines.
Celebrating one’s cuisine can also serve to highlight different cultures, which Japanese Academic Intern Jennifer Novak ’19 described over a meal at the Gordon Commons. She commented, “We just don’t really have exposure to home food. It helps to bring a little piece of home with you to campus while also being able to share your food and your culture.”
While abstract concepts are integral to understanding food, there is always the simple, visceral joy of appreciating it. Lin captured this sentiment in one succinct sentence: “There is nothing better in this world than eating good food.”