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The Unifying Force in the Kitchen: Simon Zhang Brings Culinary Passion From China to Massasoit

Gianna DiPasquale

Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Simon Zhang

When passing through the hub of Massasoit Hall, you come to a basement equipped with couches, a TV, a ping pong table, a pool table, foosball, and miniscule to this wide-open space, a kitchen. In its own cove, unattractive to many, this rusty speck is a place for opportunity; a place where masterpieces are created and Massasoit resident Simon Zhang, unifies the fourth floor.

China’s biggest city at 24.15 million people, Shanghai, the center of innovation, has sent to Springfield College an innovator himself. Escaping the rigorous education system in China, where enjoyable activities such as sports and clubs don’t exist, Zhang explains that their primary school years grow more and more challenging. Middle school and high school are especially intense and competitive due to the high schools in China being private, unlike the United States. The ferocity of their schools is accordant with the pressure-filled college entrance exams, determining the fate of their future. The college entrance exam for Chinese students is extremely difficult and the only thing they are judged on for acceptance to a university. This accounts for the reason they don’t spend time doing things they love, because then they may risk getting an unacceptable grade on the exam.

Zhang said, “Ever wonder why Asian kids are so good at math? We are not superhuman beings; we just practice when we are four years old.”

Zhang dreamed of experiencing an academic career where he could find his own interests, relax, and enjoy life. He has resided in the United States since the age of 13.

Living with a new host family each year in the U.S. while attending Holy Cross High School in Waterbury, Conn., Zhang has bloomed to excel academically, discover his own hobbies, as well as become a leader and unifying friend.

“He always cares about your day and will help you with anything you need,” says floor mate and friend Colleen Myers.

Zhang’s kindness immediately shone upon the first floor meeting of the school year, when he offered up his tutoring help in math, which he excels in. Zhang is a student in the selective PT program at Springfield College, and always keeps in mind how he can benefit others. After completing the PT program, Zhang is considering bringing back his degree and knowledge to China, where physical therapy is not its own industry. Zhang says, “It would be kind of good to be the groundbreaker, and set the bar and rules.”

Perhaps the passion of Zhang’s which has impacted the most people is his adoration of food and cooking. Growing up with a father who owns his own restaurant, Zhang has been in a tasteful environment for the food industry and drawn to cooking shows since a young age. When home in Shanghai he even picked up a job as a sauté chef in a Four Seasons Hotel, gaining kitchen experience. With Zhang’s original dream of owning a restaurant and attending culinary school, his father advised that spending 15 plus hours in the kitchen every day, can take away some of the love for it, and that he should return to his dream after he earns money from a “real job.”

Zhang has gone above and beyond with his love for cooking and has shared it with his floor. He even went to the lengths of buying $500 worth of cooking supplies to bake cheesecakes, ice cream sandwiches, Super Bowl wings, and Holiday feasts for Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Zhang always made sure to include everyone by preparing the specialized Jewish dish of potato latkes with sour cream and apple sauce on the handcrafted menus he took orders on. When Zhang isn’t cooking dinner for the floor, he goes knocking door to door every night to rally the troops upon command of Myers to call the guys side of the hall for 6 p.m. Cheney dinner.

One of the biggest cultural differences that Simon noticed upon living in America was the simple act of eating dinner. Food, is something that brings people together whether it is preparing it, sitting at a table discussing it in a restaurant or home, or eating it.  Zhang says that with his experience in host families, dinner is more of simply fixing a plate for yourself, and not eating together all the time besides possibly Saturday and Sundays.  In China, 70 percent of families eat dinner with their families every day.

“In China we sit down and eat a meal at the same time. It’s kind of a family moment,” said Zhang.

Ritual and etiquette is a large part of the Chinese culture, which has naturally developed into high standards for proper dining etiquette. For the Thanksgiving and Christmas extravaganzas, Zhang and floor mates even acquired Cheney Dining Hall plates, cups and silverware, after Zhang refused to serve his stroke of genius on paper and plastic.

Tali Twomey, fourth floor resident, comments, “We all sat together and had this dinner. He spent hours in the Massasoit kitchen just cooking this feast for us, it was crazy.”

All together in their common room they sat laughing, conversing and enjoying a meal cooked out of pure intentions and a good heart. The meal of course could not be complete without sparkling cider, Zhang’s signature cheesecake and apple pie.

Zhang’s kindness and eagerness for the kitchen has even expanded beyond Massasoit. He is in the works with Springfield administrators to start the very first cooking club. Zhang would like this club to entail work with Cheney to provide catering for students and possibly hire people outside to teach them how to cook quick meals, elaborate family dinners, handle different ingredients and diverse cooking techniques.

Zhang says, “My biggest hope is that the club can start a catering event so we get to fix up our menu and serve a full course meal.”

In speaking with the director of student activities and club events Annie Warchol, Zhang learned more about the course of action to take in initiating a club. Zhang was informed that even with the enthusiasm and high interest for cooking of other students as well as Warchol, this sort of club would be difficult to initiate, for the safety of the food and approval through Springfield College’s contract with Aramark, the food provider for all locations on campus, who would need to approve this as well.

College students never know who may be their next-door neighbor, new group of friends, or who will impact their life. After being away from his parents for so long, Zhang says, “Home is kind of a distant feeling of me.” However, For the 4th floor of Massasoit, Zhang has helped to complete the atmosphere of a home away from home, and turn strangers into more than just floor-mates, but a family.

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