Some consider the chilly weather to be the herald of autumn, while others consider it to be the changing color of leaves. According to Dr. Zhaochen Luo and Ms. Audrey Fenske, though, one of the true markers of the new season is enjoying a meal in the company of good friends. Zhaochen and Audrey met through the International Friends Program, which matches international students, scholars and spouses with Duke employees and students. Since meeting last semester, they have maintained a strong friendship with each other and have bonded over their shared enthusiasm to learn about each other’s cultures, and of course, their love for food. I had the pleasure of getting to know Zhaochen and Audrey in an interview where I got to learn more about how they’ve kept their friendship thriving in the last year.
Q: Where did you grow up and what is your home country?
Zhaochen: I’m from China. I grew up in a small city: Hengyang city in Hunan province in southern China. When I was nineteen, I went to another city, Wuhan in Hubei province, to start my university life. I spent almost ten years there and I met my husband there, as well. After I finished my graduate studies, I obtained a PhD in Preventive Veterinary Medicine and then I came to the US, to Duke University, with my husband last September. I found a job in a post-doc position at Duke University School of Medicine and my studies focus on the development of a universal influenza vaccine. A few months later, I joined the International Friends program and met Audrey.
Audrey: I’m from around the Triangle area, but I had lived in Virginia for the last seven years until I moved back to Durham last July. I did my undergrad at Duke, then I moved to Virginia. I’m a dance teacher, performer, and choreographer, and so I had done all of that there. I decided I needed a change last summer, and so I applied for a position at the career center at Duke and got it. That’s why I moved back with my husband in July 2019.
Q: What inspired you to apply to the International Friends Program?
Zhaochen: I found out about it from someone who works at my church who had some connections with Duke. Around last Christmas, he invited some international students to join him for dinner at his home. He’s very nice, and so is his family. He had studied in China for almost four years, and so he returns the kindness he was shown there with the international students here. He suggested I join the International Friends program. I was so happy to learn about it that I searched the program online that night and applied for it a few days later when it became available.
Audrey: I was working in the Career Center, and even though I was back in the Triangle and had friends here I was, you know, also trying to make some new friends, and at the same time, I was interested in being involved with clubs and activities at Duke. Duke’s pretty special to me being an alum, so I definitely wanted to try being as involved as possible. I got an email one day一 a Student Affairs email一 about the International Friends program and I thought, “Oh my gosh, that sounds perfect!” I can make a friend; I can meet someone new; we can explore Durham and try new things together一 if my friend’s into that. And you know, that sort of thing. It checked a lot of boxes and sounded like something really interesting for me to do, and so I applied and that’s how I got involved.
Zhaochen: I feel very honored to have met Audrey. We share many hobbies, I think, and so do our husbands! And we’re all foodies! We love delicious foods so we share dishes from different cultures with each other. Audrey also showed me the museum in downtown Durham and took me to eat ice cream, which I love very much! But during the pandemic, we couldn’t meet in person very often, so she came up with the idea that maybe we can share our dinners through Zoom. I thought it was a genius idea!
Audrey: Like Zhaochen said, we had this super fun day where we ate at the Federal and we went to the museum hotel downtown and went to the bank vault and then we got ice-cream and went to the succulent store. We had this jam-packed, fun day and it was awesome! I had all these plans for all these other fun days where we could do more local activities, you know. We both made each other laugh a whole lot. We just had such a great friendship, and so I knew that we couldn't let this pandemic stop us. We had to stay connected.
Q: Can you tell us more about how you’ve managed to stay connected?
Audrey: Well, we could surely get together over Zoom, but there had to be something else we could do instead of just meeting up and talking一 something that still involves sharing culture, you know. I think the International Friends Program is about that cross-cultural connection and learning about each other and navigating conversations about culture, things like that. So I thought, well, we both love food! Pre-pandemic, we had talked about Zhaochen coming over to make an American dinner, and then we’d go over to her house and they would make a Chinese dinner. I thought, well, my husband can cook! And Zhaochen and her husband can cook! And so instead, I thought, well, why don’t we find recipes and share them, and we’ll just make our own meals in our homes and then share that meal together. Zhaochen was onboard with it and thought it sounded like a good idea. For our first Zoom dinner, Zhaochen shared a really delicious recipe for a noodle dish with shrimp一 it was so good! For our second Zoom dinner, it was my turn, and I sent Zhaochen a chicken and dumplings recipe. Our most recent dinner was salt and pepper shrimp, and it was really good! We trade back and forth on who’s doing the recipe and we send the recipe over and we all go buy our ingredients and make the dinner and eat it on Zoom.
Q: What similarities have you found between your respective cultures?
Audrey: Love of food, for sure! The people of the world are more alike than we realize. For the most part, everybody in the world is a good person. Everyone has a story, a family, love in their hearts. In our conversations, that just becomes more and more evident even though we grew up and lived on opposite sides of the world. We still have so many similar experiences; like, we both have the moms that want to call in and check on us all the time. Those little things that are so common across cultures show how we have more similarities than differences. That’s been brought home to me through this program.
Zhaochen: People in Southern China eat a lot of spicy food, and I didn’t know people in the United States also liked spicy food! I learned this from Audrey.
Audrey: Yes, exactly! And food is an emotional thing, you know. It’s a great connecting factor because everybody eats! And everybody has stories about food, and connections that they have with other people through food. It’s a great unifying factor. We have really connected over our love of trying new foods, so it's been a lot of fun to share culture with each other this way! We also always end up talking for hours - it's so much fun.
Q: Have you encountered any moments of cultural misunderstanding?
Audrey: I can’t think of anything, but I think that language can be difficult sometimes.
Audrey: I don’t know any Chinese一 like Zhaochen is speaking a second language to me which means I’m the weak link here. So, we’ll use translation sometimes. I’ll text words to her so she can look it up in the dictionary. We did that the day we hung out in-person, too. Technology is great!
Q: What are you taking away from this experience and your friendship? Do you have any advice for people interested in this program?
Audrey: My advice to Duke community members who aren’t in the international community is to do this program. You can fit it around your schedule and make it a part of your life. It’s such a good way to (1) be more involved at Duke, and (2) to meet someone new and to learn about a new culture. I would encourage anyone who’s even the slightest bit interested to get involved with this program. And plus, it’s fun! I don’t think of Zhaochen as my “International House friend”一 she’s just my friend. I’m having dinner with my friends when I meet with Zhaochen and her husband on Zoom.
Zhaochen: As a Chinese person, our culture tells us that we need to be humble and reserved with strangers, but after joining the International Friends program and meeting Audrey, I found that I’m now more willing to talk in English with other Americans. Now I have topics to talk about with them. Audrey also told me that in the United States, there’s a special drink you can find at Starbucks in autumn.
Audrey: I told her about Pumpkin spice lattes! Have you gotten to try one yet, Zhaochen? Zhaochen: This weekend I will.
Audrey: That’s culture right there! Pumpkin spice lattes.
Zhaochen: I’m very happy to try new things, so yes, this weekend!
Even though it was the International Friends program that brought Zhaochen and Audrey together, their shared enthusiasm to learn from each other’s cultures is what paved the way to a wonderful and authentic friendship. And, not to mention, a yummy meal shared among friends sounds like the perfect way to herald the new season. If any of the recipes Zhaochen and Audrey mentioned sound delicious, you can try them out for yourself!