Fast Food, Slow Change

Fulbright winner studies waning use of chopsticks in China

By Magazine Staff  |  Photos courtesy of Mazen Shomali
Shomali in China

As Mazen Shomali, ’11, waited to order in a restaurant on his first day in Macau, he watched as the waitress handed chopsticks to the Chinese people at his table. Then she handed him a fork.

What a coincidence, Shomali thought. After all, during his year-long Fulbright experience, Shomali is not only teaching English to students at Macau’s University of Saint Joseph, but also conducting research into the waning use of chopsticks as American fast food restaurants crop up in Chinese cities.

“I have observed a lot during my stay here,” says Shomali, who arrived in Macau Aug. 29 to begin his prestigious one-year English Teaching Assistantship—and has been handed forks several times, as the waiters recognize him as a foreigner. “I’ve been to a variety of restaurants, Portuguese, Macanese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai. In an overwhelming majority of these restaurants Western silverware is available. Some even only have Western silverware.”

Shomali has been focused mainly on teaching English and increasing his fluency in Mandarin, but he has also made several observations for his research project. “I wasn’t expecting the wide availability of forks, spoons, and knives,” he says. “I also wasn’t expecting that the Chinese people here would prefer to use Western utensils over chopsticks. When I studied abroad in Beijing in fall 2009, an average restaurant would never have Western utensils. I used chopsticks most of the time.”

The Campus Buzz

Shomali won Loyola’s third Fulbright in three years, generating increased interest in the program among students and faculty. Loyola students and recent graduates submitted a record 18 Fulbright applications this fall. That number has grown from one in 2007 to four in 2008, seven in 2009, and 11 in 2010.

“There’s a buzz on campus now. Students are encouraging roommates or friends to apply,” says Arthur Sutherland, Ph.D., director of Loyola’s national fellowships office and associate professor of theology. He works with the records office and office of international programs to identify students who would be good applicants, and then meets with them as early as their sophomore year—even if he has to Skype with students who are studying abroad—to start the process.

Each application requires three recommendation letters from faculty, so professors play a key role in putting together strong applications, Sutherland says. “I get calls from faculty members who are recommending students. I can say that without a doubt our faculty is very supportive and really involved.”

Searching for Chopsticks

Although Shomali had hypothesized that American fast food restaurants might be the source of the shift in utensil use, he now has a different perspective.

“I wouldn’t entirely say that it’s the result of Western fast food culture. I might say that it is from Portugal’s influence on Macau over the hundreds of years they’ve been here. At the same time, I always ask myself, ‘Why don’t I see the same thing in Shanghai and Hong Kong, two of the most Western cities in China?’”

Macau is the only place in China where casinos and gambling are legal, and Shomali believes that the casinos play a role in the availability of Western utensils.

“The casinos have created an atmosphere where appearances are vital. Casinos spend fortunes on being big, bold, and flashy by getting the latest technology, finding the hippest entertainment, and having the trendiest design,” he says. “This mentality is even displayed in the smaller elements of the casinos. I think this where the Western silverware comes into play. Western things are viewed as higher-class items because they’re more expensive and not as readily available compared to local items. Also foreign allure attached to Western things factors into this equation as well. This is all done in order to attract customers. Being bombarded by the attention to appearances and seeing the resulting wealth associated with it has compelledeveryone else in Macau to emulate what the casinos do.”

More about Macau

Shomali in China

After a few days of orientation in Hong Kong, Shomali arrived and started exploring Macau.

“The most surprising thing to me is how different Macau is from mainland China. That has been the best part of being in Macau,” says Shomali, who has been struck by the relaxed lifestyle and the astonishingly low unemployment rate. “I have traveled to many parts of China. I’ve been as far north as Beijing, as far west as the Gobi Desert, and as far south as Guilin. None of those places can compare to the uniqueness of Macau. It is China and at the same time it’s not.”

The first and last European colony in China, Macau returned to Chinese hands in 1999, and is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, Shomali explains.

“In terms of internal affairs the Macau government has a great amount of autonomy, and retains many of its legal and political structures from Portugal. I see this every day when I walk to my apartment from work. I live near a lively public square, and when I pass by I will see people openly reading the Bible in hopes to inspire nonbelievers and demonstrations on the atrocities of the Chinese government. This would never be allowed in the mainland due to the extreme measures China takes to censure their people. I find it especially fascinating that this happens on China’s doorstep.”

Shomali was especially surprised to find a “huge Catholic influence” in Macau, where there is a large Catholic population and most of the historical sites are Catholic churches. He not only received time off for the Mid-Autumn festival and Chong Yang festival, but also for All Souls Day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas. Macau’s Christmas decorations even included nativity scenes.

Teaching English

Shomali’s students have been studying English for a while, but they haven’t had much time to use it. “My mission is to unlock their English language knowledge that is stored up in their brain. It’s very fun and rewarding. It’s also great building a personal relationship with the students.”

Although some of Shomali’s students are eager to study and improve their English, many of them are unmotivated—especially since they know they don’t need education to get one of the many readily available jobs in the casinos.

“That has been the most challenging part of my experience in Macau,” says Shomali, who will return home to Lutherville, Md., in the middle of June. “Besides improving their speaking abilities, I try to inspire them to love learning.”

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