Jolie Lee, a year-long volunteer in China, writes about receiving a cooking lesson from some of her teenaged students at her teacher’s apartment! Jolie, a Northwestern graduate who worked as a reporter in Chicago prior to serving with WorldTeach, is teaching Middle School in a town called Lengshuijiang, or “Cold Water River”, located about four hours south of Changsha in Hunan Province.


I wouldn’t say I am a bad cook — just an infrequent one. I cook a few things and I cook them well, but my repertoire is very limited. When I told my students that the main dish I make is fried rice, they immediately offered to whip up a meal for me. Teach the teacher. I was in charge of providing meats and vegetables, and they would do the rest.


Unfortunately, I failed at even this simple task. I inadvertently bought pork instead of beef, marinated eggs instead of regular eggs and and probably triple the amount of potatoes we needed. Nonetheless, my students are resourceful. Seven students descended on my apartment. A few who learned the art of cooking from their grandmothers took charge in the kitchen. I stood idly back, admiring their skill aloud.


Another food shopping faux pas I made — I did not buy enough peppers. So while my kitchen steamed and clanked with the sounds of delicious food being made, I scrambled to the street outside of the school hoping the vegetable vendors were still around. No small green peppers, the kind found in nearly every dish. But I did find a larger variety that are not as spicy. I was also lucky enough to run into my neighbor and Chinese tutor, Mr. Tang, who offered to lend me some spicy pepper sauce when he heard my dilemma.


Being the resourceful girls they are, my students were unfazed by my failed mission. They started chopping the too-big, not-spicy-enough peppers. I saw they had finished two dishes already and were making two more. I had bought an eggplant that I thought would just end up in the garbage since I was leaving town the next day for a week. But my students had cleared out my refrigerator, including the eggplant, and were making the most of everything I had.


jolie cooking


We ate in the living room, toasting orange juice and milk. The girls were happy in a way I never got to see in the classroom. When we finished off every last bit of food, they started taking silly pictures of each other. During class, my students are one mass of faces and black hair. But here with a handful of them hanging out with me in my home, I could pick out the personalities — the goofy jokester, the serious brooder, the nice girl, the shy girl, the leader of the pack.



They called their head teacher to tell her they would be late for the evening self-study. I was afraid they would get in trouble, but they insisted that they could take time off from self-study, especially now since so many students were sick and not showing up in the evenings. But they could not miss the second self-study period and reluctantly left after helping me clean up.


“We’ll do it again,” I told them as they left. “I will buy beef next time.”


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