Food Festivals and Festival Foods: Do They Bring Us Together or Push Us Apart?

Photo by Sandra Filipe on

Shihan Liu

Culture is at the heart of many cuisines. Liu discusses whether Asian foods served in a Western setting create a sense of community or division among Chinese international students.

Does food bring people together? My answer to this question a few years ago would have been yes. I was convinced of this when I studied how Chinese international students in Ottawa went through a dietary acculturation and adopted a hybrid identity by adopting various foodways since their arrival.[1] However, a podcast I heard recently called “A Hot Dog Is a Sandwich” caused me to doubt my previous answer.[2] Looking back on my previous research, I can see some of the divisions that food creates among people, divisions I did not see at the time. Let me first tell you about my research before digging into the complexities of this question.

During the summer of 2018, I conducted participant observation at the Ottawa Night Market Chinatown, also referred to as “Night Market”.  The Night Market is a three-day Asian food festival hosted annually and embraced by the local Asian community and beyond. Although the food was described as “Asian,” much of the food being served was predominantly Chinese. A substantial number of vendors spoke Mandarin. Many of the decorative elements on the food booths resemble what I grew up seeing on the street as a Chinese native. It seemed that the vendors were appealing to Chinese natives more than to Asians raised within a Western cultural context. On a few booths, vendor names were written in English only, while other booths displayed their names in bold Chinese characters alongside simple English translations (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: A Tibaitian Food Booth taken by author
Figure 2: A Line Up for Xinjiang Kebab taken by author

After attending the festival, I conducted semi-structured interviews with fifteen attendees, who were also post-secondary Chinese international students like myself. I use quotations from them to better tell my story, and I also use pseudonyms to protect their identities. I was eager to find out how festivals and festival foods had impacted the students’ dietary acculturation and hybridization. Dietary acculturation is defined as the alteration of immigrant diets to adapt to host food cultures.[3] Hybridization, on the other hand, describes the creation of new food practices when home and host diets collide.[4] Hybridization is often the result of immigrants coping with local limitations as they attempt to retain their home culture diet.[5] Yet I found a different kind of hybridization occurring. The students whom I interviewed became more “hybrid” in their food practices not so much from incorporating Canadian food habits, but more so from increasing consumption of various Chinese regional cuisines and Asian cuisines. My interviewees were able to find a common ground with these diverse cuisines that were relatively closer to their home culture foods than Western cuisines.

Chinese cuisine is defined by many different regional cuisines. Customs and traditional foods vary depending on the region. For instance, eating jiaozi (dumplings) is the most significant feature of a northern Chinese New Year,[6] whereas eating tangyuan (rice balls)[7] is practiced by many Chinese people living in the south. Additionally, the differences in traditional foods are far more complex than the north/south dichotomy. To celebrate traditional Chinese festivals together with peers coming from all over China, some students needed to hold back their customs and to go with the majority or to adapt to what is more widely available in Ottawa. For some participants, it felt like an adventure rather than a frustration. Chong enjoyed exploring mooncakes[8] with unfamiliar fillings—five nuts, red beans, and even roast pork. He also made jiaozi for the first time on Chinese New Year with the help of his northern Chinese friends. “I appreciated the unique opportunity to hang out with Chinese students who came from all over China,” said participant Chong, “as much as I still love the mooncake that I grew up eating, which was stuffed with lotus seeds and salted duck egg yolk.”

The students who chose to share festival meals with others at home wanted stronger friendships in addition to having a good time. They were willing to put in the extra hours and efforts to arrange and go through the trouble of grocery shopping and cooking for the larger group. These activities often led to stronger social bonds since they were family-oriented activities back home. “Eating outside is not appropriate for family-oriented festivals,” noted Lilian, “and I just like the feeling of having everybody at home! I would cook some dishes and my friends would also bring over some dishes.” Celebrating with roommates was also a popular option, where the individual contribution was often expected. For Samuel and his roommates, their meal was essentially a team effort and they tried to keep the labor division balanced between the team members. “Some of us do the chopping while the others do the stir-frying. Each one of us contributes one dish to the meal as a whole,” said Samuel. The Chinese meal structure—serving a variety of dishes, e.g., protein, veggies, soup, and rice all at the same time— encourages food sharing.[9] The structure certainly played its part in forming these expectations and norms as preparing and consuming a Chinese meal can be labor-intensive and difficult to manage by only one person. However, the shared meals were active choices made by students who wanted stronger friendships. Otherwise, they can save the trouble of cooking by eating out while still enjoying a good time.

While it seemed that food sharing brought these students together, this perception was challenged as I learned more about the divisions present in food culture. In a food-themed podcast called “A Hot Dog is a Sandwich”, Khushbu Shah argued that there are more dividing lines around food since food is closely tied to religion, gender, and socioeconomic status. Meat-eating, for example, is rooted in value judgments regarding religious beliefs, health perceptions, and environmental issues.[10] After re-visiting my 2018 research, I began to notice these fault lines in food culture. Rather than romanticizing the power of food in eliminating differences and bonding people through a pure indulgence, we should push ourselves to think beyond the obvious. While food strengthens our relationship with one group of people, does it also push us away from the others?

When consuming Chinese food in a multicultural setting like the Night Market that involves both Chinese and non-Chinese people, the students cared less about finding intracultural nuances than they did within their friend groups. Instead, they wanted to see how their culture was represented and to what extent it was accepted by the host society. Unfortunately, the students internalized the expectation that they need to compromise what is culturally appropriate to them for mainstream acceptance. Cultural inappropriateness, in the context of the Night Market, simply meant tailoring Chinese food habits to fit local foodways, which made the food less desirable to Chinese attendees. This was exemplified by one classic yet controversial food item, the stinky tofu. Xiaoxuan thought that non-Chinese attendees at the Night Market wouldn’t appreciate fermented tofu and would regard it as rotten. The Chinese vendor, who might have the same expectation, eliminated the fermentation process altogether. They spread stinky sauce instead over fresh tofu to make it stinky, but the end product was disappointing. Beanie agreed with this observation and added that serving stinky tofu with pickles was weird both gastronomically and culturally, yet the vendors still made this combo to satisfy their Western patrons. Or at least, that was their intention.

Our conversation about disappointing foods at the festival led to nostalgia for the taste of home and the lack of it in a more everyday context. Changes in food habits due to local availabilities were frustrating for many participants. Kelly thought that foods tasted too sweet here, and yet she had to rely on them because “there is no better choice” considering the logistical factors, such as her limited cooking skill, busy school schedule, and the extra time and effort required to get foods she truly enjoys. Some participants cut down or gave up dining out and ordering deliveries altogether because they were hugely dissatisfied with the quality. They thought that the bland, oily, or simply inauthentic[11] Chinese food at the restaurants was not worth what they paid for it. Lowering expectations became a common coping mechanism as Lilian told me, “After spending all these years in Ottawa, authenticity (of Chinese food) has become less important to me because it is too hard to find any. As long as the food is good or not too bad, I’m okay with that.” I sensed their resignation in finding enjoyable Chinese food in Ottawa from our conversations. Daily food consumption is more like surviving than living a fulfilling life abroad. The convenience, affordability, and joy of dining out and consuming food deliveries in China were frequently mentioned during the interviews. The absence of this joy amplified the students’ feelings of grief for leaving behind loved ones at home, and more significantly, a weak sense of belonging in the host country.

In a paper on the immigrant experience of food insecurity in Canada, Koc and Welsh argue that the accessibility to culturally acceptable food is an essential measure for assessing the membership of the immigrants within the host country.[12] Based on my fieldwork, participants understanding of membership was seen as subordinate, which was reflected in their dissatisfying experience of eating stinky tofu as the food habits of their Western counterparts were prioritized over theirs. Further, their daily food consumption was not for pleasure but survival. Even Chinese restaurants were not doing the students proud and could not offer them the comfort of eating at home. They did not feel like they belonged. This interpretation, whether accurate or not, alienated the students from the larger host society. The Chinese food scene in Ottawa did not accurately reflect how they ate, and the most desirable way of eating could only be retrieved by going back home. It was exactly those feelings that pushed the host society away from the students. The lack of representation and appreciation for the home culture food habits in the host society diminished opportunities for real cultural exchange.

Whether or not food brings people together is indeed a question beyond gastronomy. At the end of the day, my interviewees were happily giving up some of their regional dietary habits in exchange for good times with their compatriots, while retaining the sense of pride of where they came from. The students became more hybrid through incorporating various Chinese regional cuisines and other Asian cuisines into their diet as a way of acculturating to the host country while maintaining their original food habits. On the contrary, the inferior feeling that the students had when exploring Chinese food in more mainstream settings in Ottawa partially explained the lower adoption of Western Canadian foodways. It is easier for a true cultural exchange to take place when all parties are treated relatively equally than when one party dominates the rest.


I graduated over two years ago with a Master of Arts degree from Carleton University in Ottawa, with a major in Communication and Media studies. I was inspired to explore all things food and culture by my own experience as an international student. The concept of dietary acculturation and its implications on ethnic identity for Chinese international students fascinated me the most at that time. I’ve been working in the advertising industry since I graduated, but I still spend a significant amount of leisure time watching, listening, and thinking about food within the realm of culture and identity.


[1] In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Food Issues, foodways are defined as “food related activities, practices, [and] beliefs.” Ken Albala, “Music About Food,” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Food Issues, ed. Ken Albala (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2015), 1005.

[2] Khushbu Shah, “Does Food Really Bring People Together?,”December 23, 2020,in Hot Dog Is a Sandwich, hosted by Josh Scherer and Nicole Hendizadeh (Enayati), produced by Ramble, podcast, 46:20,

[3] Paul Fieldhouse, “Biocultural Perspectives on Nutrition,” in Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture, ed. Paul Fieldhouse, 2nd ed. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1995), 1–29.

[4] Tuba Üstüner and Douglas B. Holt, “Dominated Consumer Acculturation: The Social Construction of Poor Migrant Women’s Consumer Identity Projects in a Turkish Squatter,” Journal of Consumer Research 34, no. 1 (2007): 41–56,; Mark Cleveland, Michel Laroche, Frank Pons, and Rony Kastoun, “Acculturation and Consumption: Textures of Cultural Adaptation,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 33, no. 3 (2009): 196–212,; and Yan Zhang and Yan Guo, “Becoming Transnational: Exploring Multiple Identities of Students in a Mandarin-English Bilingual Programme in Canada,” Globalization, Societies and Education 13, no. 2 (2014): 210–229,

[5] Cleveland et al., “Acculturation and Consumption,” 196–212.

[6] Junru Liu, Chinese Food: Introductions to Chinese Culture, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[7] A bowl of Tangyuan contains glutinous rice balls made with sweet/salty fillings or with no filling at all. They are usually served in a bowl with the soup in which the rice balls were boiled. Tangyuan is also called Yuanxiao or Tangtuan in Mandarin.

[8] Mooncakes are known as Yuebing in Mandarin, which are baked goods stuffed with sweet/salty fillings.

[9] Carole Counihan, ed., Food and Culture: A Reader, 4th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[10] Shah, “Does Food Really Bring People Together?,”46:20.

[11] I acknowledge that authenticity means different things for different people, and its definition also varies based on context. An in-depth discussion of food authenticity is beyond the scope of this article. However, inauthentic Chinese food in the context of this article, as illustrated by several participants, meant the food was not cooked like the “original version” known to them, or it did not taste as such.

[12] Mustafa Koc and Jennifer Welsh, “Food, Foodways and Immigrant Experience,” Paper written for the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association Conference, Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 2001.