Here's what Chinese students are bringing to New York tables 🍜
A patron at Momofuku Noodle Bar, New York. Source: Facebook/Devon Liu

What happens when your city receives an influx of international students?

Specifically, a steady stream of well-to-do to Chinese students studying at the best universities a cosmopolitan city can offer?

Answer: delicious food.

Over the last few years, the Chinese student population at New York University (NYU) more than doubled to 6,500 in 2016. In 2012, it was just over 2,200. For context, NYU has the biggest international student enrollment compared to any other university in the country, and China sends the biggest group of students here compared to any other nation.

This means NYU hosts one of the largest global student bodies nationally. As an international student, it’s easy to get homesick, and one of the quickest and most effective ways to cure this is through food.

New York is a melting pot of a city when it comes to gastronomic needs, and it’s more than happy to let Chinese restaurants set up base.

One neighbourhood that has seen its Chinese food scene thrive is the East Village.

Speaking to Eater, Shiqin Cao, a recent NYU graduate said: “[The East Village is] definitely a place where Chinese students gather.”

“Whenever I go there, I run into at least 10 people from school. It’s kind of catered to wealthy college students who are missing home.”

For a sense of just how much the Chinese food scene has mushroomed, consider that there are now five Chinese rice noodle shops in the 1.3 miles between Greenwich Village and Tompkins Square Park. Close to a dozen Sinosphere restaurants (defined here as Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, or otherwise Chinese adjacent) have or will set up shop around the East Village.

Near Columbia University – where 29 percent of international students identified as Asian or Asian-American – there’s the La Salle Dumpling Room, Legend, Panda Express, Junxi Kitchen, Xi’an Famous Foods and more providing Asian options in uptown New York. There’s even an H Mart – an Asian grocery chain – that recently opened its only Manhattan outlet, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The question for me is, ‘Why wasn’t there one before?’ ” asked Mr. Wang. “It really has to do with there being more international students.”

One of these restaurants, Junzi, was established by three entrepreneurial Asian students at Yale. According to Vogue, husband and wife team Yong Zhao and Wanting Zhang got together as environmental science students at their Connecticut campus and joined forces with Ming Bai, then an MFA student.

What started from a shop opposite their campus grew into three branches, Columbia’s being the second with another planned near NYU in downtown Manhattan.

“We’re trying to establish the brand with younger people,” Zhao said.

“Universities are the first step.”

Looking at this huge range of food options, their wealthy clientele and the pricey menu options, it’s hard to imagine a student population unable to fork out fine dining costs.

But recent data from the Wisconsin Hope Laboratory show that US students are forgoing more than they bargained for, including nutritious meals and a place to live. More than one-third of 43,000 students at 66 institutions across 20 states weren’t sure whether they’d be able to meet their nutritional needs this past year alone.

These insecurities are linked to poorer academic performance, according to the study.

Yet, in the East Village, options from Hunan rice noodles to Cajun-Chinese spicy crawfish going for US$24 per bowl or US$15 per pound respectively are on offer –  all within the same half-mile radius. Numbeo estimates a meal at an inexpensive restaurant in the city ranges between US$12-25

In the face of such inequality, what can be done?

For one, privileged students can support more vulnerable students through student-led initiatives, such as the student-run College and University Food Bank Alliance which offers food to those struggling to afford it, as well as meal-sharing apps.

Solidarity matters, too. Richer students can work together with their less fortunate peers in pushing for costs, tuition or otherwise, to be more affordable, and thus, inclusive for all.

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