Novelist Paulo Coelho once wrote: “Culture makes people understand each other better.” In the summer of 2015, I was tasked with teaching “American Culture Classes” to a camp of Chinese students between the ages of 10 and 17 in Dalian, China, in the hopes of helping to promote better international understanding. Trying to break down culture into bit-sized pieces fit for a classroom isn’t necessarily an easy task, not when you’re truly trying to capture its essence. But my teaching crew and I decided on interactive (and hopefully fun) lessons such as sports, holidays, and food.
If we could have filled our bags with the best dishes from around the US, we would have. However, in the name of suitcase space and hygiene, we settled on a presentation that discussed foods across different American regions and boxes of Mac ‘n Cheese that could be prepared during the program. The students quickly discovered that, alongside the large assortment of candy we had brought, we would be making food for them to try. Excitement for the lesson grew.
My new friend had respectfully declined to taste the Mac ‘n Cheese, and I really couldn’t blame him.
The morning of the big lesson, I was led downstairs away from the classrooms to the campus kitchen by one of the program’s liaisons, who then promptly abandoned me to rush off on a sudden errand. Meekly, I stepped into the kitchen, clutching my boxes of Mac ‘n Cheese like a safety blanket. The sprawling kitchen had many steamy rooms tucked inside one another and gleaming chrome tools that were scattered on every surface and hanging on every wall; some I recognized, but the purpose of others downright confused me. I was baffled by all the sights, smells, and noises that surrounded me, when all I wanted was to find a pot. An intruder in the kitchen, I felt like a rock in a stream, standing still as a bustling flow moved around me with speed, calm, and clarity. I was the bumbling American who didn’t know how to speak a word of Mandarin and who was thinking that making box Mac ‘n Cheese had never been more difficult.
My stunned confusion didn’t last too long; I was quickly spotted and approached by a man in an apron who would become my knight in shining armor. We both soon realized that neither of us spoke the other’s language. I fell back on poor charade skills, frantically attempting to mime “pot” with outstretched arms still laden with boxes of Mac ‘n Cheese. I was smiling with desperation, hoping he would help me instead of kick me out of the kitchen. My new acquaintance gave my strange motions a bemused up-down, his smile sly and narrow, but his eyes twinkling with amusement. Then, he smartly grabbed one of the boxes out of my hands. Since these boxes are designed for even the most culinary clueless of individuals (i.e., me until junior year of university), he quickly understood the picture directions. Before I knew it, a pot closer to the size of a basin was in front of me, filled with water that was slowly beginning to simmer. Pleased with how the situation was progressing, I began the fine art of “cooking” – gracefully dumping dried pasta into the boiling water.
We hadn’t spoken a single word to each other, but managed to bond in the kitchen in a way that felt pure, natural, and human. In a short moment, we had connected over food, over creating a meal, over sharing an experience.
My presence in the kitchen had garnered some attention. Heads kept poking around corners to watch me at my station. As I fidgeted, my thumbs waiting for the pasta to soften, it felt like my culture was truly on display in this Chinese kitchen, even more so than in the classroom where I presented it in colorful interactive lessons.
My acquaintance disappeared briefly as I stirred the pasta. When he reappeared, he was carrying a chopping board filled with fresh colorful vegetables – rows of white, green, red, and yellow were diced and lined to perfection. Their addition would have created a wonderful burst of flavor for my students’ palettes, but in the name of “culture” I could merely shake my head and point at the box with its image of pale pasta and creamy cheese. I shrugged my shoulders in a “what can you do?” fashion, wondering about the purpose of cultural preservation versus cultural collaboration.
Before I knew it, the pasta was ready, and my hero in an apron was there to assist me drain the water, add butter and the powdery “cheese” mix, and doling out small portions into plastic cups. My new friend had respectfully declined to taste the Mac ‘n Cheese, and I really couldn’t blame him after the sight of those chopped vegetables, and breathing in the delightful smells of the kitchen. With a smile and a wave goodbye, I brought my culinary creation upstairs to the classrooms.
We hadn’t spoken a single word to each other, but managed to bond in the kitchen in a way that felt pure, natural, and human. In a short moment, we had connected over food, over creating a meal, over sharing an experience. As a teacher, this felt like the cultural exchange my lessons were trying to capture and convey. I was in China to teach culture, but I learned quite a bit about it as I was standing clueless in a kitchen.