|(Illustration: GT/Peter C. Espina)|
Every graduate from a Chinese college probably has a story to tell about the shitang, or canteen they used to frequent in between boring lectures and endless hours of studying - the place where students would gather with their peers to put down a bowl of soup, generally filled with bits of whatever ubiquitous cheap Chinese vegetable the cook managed to get their hands on that morning.
For those of us who graduated several years ago, memories of our college shitang tend to be fond. We loved making trips to the canteen, not because of the lifeless food we ate there, but for the laughter we shared with our roommates or the shy stares that a girl could receive from a boy at a nearby table - an innocent act that could sustain an entire dormitory's gossip material for days.
We always knew that the happy times at the shitang came with an order of incredibly unpalatable food - but it never really bothered us that much.
I was reminded of my school canteen days recently, after learning that some 3,000 students skipped class at a vocational school in Langfang, Hebei Province to protest their detestable shitang situation. Hundreds of tables and chairs at the canteen were smashed in the bitter episode.
The cause of their anger was simple: The food they were literally forced to eat - after school authorities locked them in to stop them from getting take-out outside - was intolerably unsavory and costly.
While it was an extreme case of discontentment, the underlying theme remains strong enough to sour a perfectly good carton of milk.
The open secret is that the relationship between canteen contractors and school authorities nationwide often results in the absence of a food quality supervisor at the shitang - and this is ruining students' appetites.
In my college days, posts on our school's BBS complaining about the horrid food was always a popular topic, with students sarcastically commenting on their latest mystery meal.
"What a surprise!" I recall one student writing, "I bought a bowl of stones from the canteen today, but it came with some rice!"
He had attached a photo of the bowl of rice he was served, inside of which were a handful of strewn pebbles.
Nowadays on Sina Weibo, students hold contests, posting pictures of their canteen food, competing for the title of "Most Tragic Meal." Previous winners have included those who ate porridge, after it was stewed without so much as a single grain of rice; and steamed duck, or more accurately, a pile of meatless bones.
Of course, most colleges don't go to such extremes to stop students from going off campus for food like the vocational school did in Langfang.
In fact, many small diners near college campuses offer tasty and inexpensive food, surviving off the unsatisfied stomachs of college students.
But somehow, college canteens, with their geographical vantage point and robust support from school authorities, never have trouble making ends meet despite the fierce competition outside.
The shitang problem is deep-rooted in China's education system, and unfortunately, there is no quick solution.
Back in college, volunteer students wore red armbands to patrol the canteen, demanding students to put away their trays and place uneaten food in recycling bins before leaving.
Perhaps, we need to bring back these red-armed bandits today, but have them stare at canteen cooks instead - while requesting them to make more palatable meals.