Leena Po is accustomed to serving meals for a crowd. Even so, she’s not sure what to expect when the crowd numbers more than 60,000 arriving from far-flung corners of the world.
Po, manager of Bemidji State University’s Lower Union food court, has traveled to Beijing as a food service manager for the 2008 Summer Games. She is one of a staff of 7,000 international chefs, managers and employees, including 700 local Chinese managers. Her employer, Aramark Corp., plans to serve 3.5 million meals over 60 days to feed athletes, coaches, staff and media for the Olympic and Paralympic games. This is the 14th time Aramark has won a food service contract for the Olympic games.
“I’m excited to see how they put together such a big event in a short timeframe,” says Po, who has been assigned to the media village and will share an apartment with another manager from Puerto Rico.
This is Po’s first Olympic experience, but she arrives in Bejing with at least one advantage. Raised in Malaysia, she speaks Mandarin Chinese and is fluent in three Chinese dialects – Hainan, Cantonese and Hokkien. She also understands, although she doesn’t speak, two other Chinese dialects — Hakka and Tehchen. In addition, she speaks English and Malay, the native language of Malaysia, where she grew up in a multilingual family. Her grandparents, who moved from China to live with the family, spoke only Hainan. Po attended a Chinese school in Malaysia, where she spoke Mandarin, but learned the Hokkien dialect from her Chinese friends who preferred that dialect in social conversations.
“It was easy as a kid,” says Po about learning so many dialects. “At the dinner table, I’d speak to my sister in Mandarin then turn to speak Hainan to my grandparents. You had to learn the language if you wanted to talk with them.”
To keep her language skills fresh, Po practices her Malay and Chinese with Bemidji State’s Malaysian exchange students. She also reads a daily Chinese newspaper online, visits other Chinese websites and keeps in touch with her Malaysian friends and family.
Po came to the U.S. in 1994 to attend Winona State University, where she graduated two years later with a degree in business administration. While in school, she also worked with Aramark’s on-campus dining services as a student representative. She hadn’t intended to stay in the U.S., but submitted her resume to Aramark on a whim while attending a college job fair. She’s been an Aramark employee ever since, first at Moorhead State and then at Bemidji State where she started in 1999. Although she treks home to Malaysia each year, she no longer plans to move back permanently. She prefers the Minnesota climate.
“Winter is my favorite season,” says Po, who saw her first snowfall as a student in Winona and now can’t imagine life without it. “I love the cold weather.”
Po has been to China twice before, but never to Beijing. She plans to visit an uncle who lives near Beijing, as well as China’s iconic landmarks, including Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. If her schedule allows – and she can get a ticket – she also hopes to attend an Olympic gymnastics, diving or volleyball event — or maybe a badminton match, a popular sport in Malaysia where she remembers staying up all night as a kid to watch major tournaments on TV.
She is also eager to sample the local Chinese foods and observe how different chefs prepare a wide variety of menus to satisfy an international palate. She doesn’t often cook in her job as a food service manager, but enjoys cooking at home and posts a blog of favorite recipes, most of which she invents, combining concepts of Malaysian, Chinese and American cooking to create one-of-a-kind dishes. Her favorite books are cookbooks, although she admits that she rarely follows a recipe. She prefers to improvise and expects to return from Beijing with some new ideas.
“The whole experience will be fun and challenging,” says Po who looks forward to working with her Chinese colleagues and others who come from around the globe. “I expect it will be busy.”
To follow Po’s adventure in Beijing, check out her photo postings – one new photo each day – at www.leenapo.com.