One of the saddest parts of being in a foreign country is birthday time. If I want a birthday at all, I have to tell people its my birthday. I have to treat them to dinner. I have to arrange an activity. And if I am teaching students, then I have make the class into a party. I could pretend that my birthday doesn’t exist as it is none of my students’ business. My foreign language teachers always made a point to emphasis culture as much as language. Birthdays are a time of tradition, celebration and other things that make countries unique.
I have come to learn that one thing that the Chinese people are long deprived of is home baked chocolate chip cookies. There is no store bought cookie that can compare with the straight out of the oven warmth that you feel when you smell hot butter and chocolate transforming into that perfect smell. The senses of children are even more sensitive than adults’. So the experience of chocolate chip cookies is even more amplified for them. And for me, as an adult, the smell triggers childhood memories that I recall only as wavy bliss. The Chinese cannot possibly feel the same way. The experience is new to them. Chinese homes are not equipped with ovens. Baked food is distinctly foreign to the Chinese. There may be exceptions but for home cooking, an oven is a luxury that few would know what to do with.
By turning an English lesson in to a cooking show about chocolate chip cookies, I can show the young generation of Chinese the joys of this addictive import and help erase the negative association with addictive imports. Damn you British East India Company. Small convection ovens could be bought at the Metro Super Market—one came to Yichang just a year before—for as little as $100. I soon bought one and finally I could roast vegetables, heat pizzas, make garlic bread, and bake cookies. These are all things that I learned to live without for a long time while living in China. I began cooking at home with much inspiration from Food Network Asia. I was determined to eat at home after having read so many report showing the use of gutter oil in cooking, poisonous rice, and other toxins. If picky shoppers were avoiding certain foods based on unofficial warnings, then restaurants could procure the tainted goods for cheap and dress them up to restaurant goers who had no access to scrutinize the kitchens. And restaurant practices are abysmal. Even if the food and the kitchens were clean, which they weren’t, the frustrated and unhealthy people cooking the food have little hope of putting much soul in the food. Unwashed weak bodied smokers sitting outside the back door of restaurants show who is in the kitchen. Bathrooms with no hot water and watered down soap mean hand washing is probably not done in the kitchen.
So for my birthday, I was happy to share with my students something happy from my childhood. After all, ceremonies, celebrations and manners are just as important to teach in the classroom. In China, even primary school teachers are specialized. They go from class to class to give subject lessons and then leave. Not only do children not learn how subjects are connected together but they do not learn that their goals in life, at that point, extend beyond homework and test scores. Rarely do they make something in class.
Remembering this a year and a half later, I recall with great joy as I rolled the cookie mix, butter, and the egg together to make the dough. Then I placed it in the tupperware. I then proceeded to take two handfuls of mixes nuts: almonds; walnuts; and pecans. I coarsely chopped them with a large knife. With the chopped up nuts still on the cutting board, I took the dough and placed it on top of the nuts, pressing the nuts into the dough before folding the dough over. The students erruted into applause at this sight. I laughed as they cheered me. We share the same tastes. And getting ready to try their first choclate chip cookie, they were brimming with anticipation as they could already smell the cookie dough. The 12 minutes the cookies spent in the over would let off a beautiful smell as the nuts toasted.
I took that time to teach them the song, “C is for cookie,” from Sesame Street, another staple of American childhood which Chinese people have never experienced before. We sang that song as the cookies set. I then prepped the second batch of cookies.
Teaching is all about timing activities right so that the lesson flows together. Cooking is much the same and so a teacher can watch the Food Netword and see a lot of similar qualities in prepping and organizing, explaining, demonstrating, and completing a task.
But the students hardly know that. They just know enough to show good manners.
Just before serving the cookies I asked the class what people drink while eating cookies. It was so cute to see that they had no idea. Some said juice. Others said coffee. I got every answer but milk. When I pulled out the two cartons of milk they again erupted in cheers.
Letting them eat gave me time to rest as the second batch of cookies cooked. Their enjoyment was a gift to me.Hardly a great birthday but a lessons that I would hope my students will remember.
But the lesson was not quite over. I still wanted to impart on them an important lesson about sharing, gratitude and gift giving. The parents of the students often sit around for the hour as their kids are studying. Studying, when it goes well, is really interesting and stimulating. The time flies by. For the parents, who are often buried in their smart phones, these lessons don't provide much to them. They just want to hear excitement coming from the classroom and know that their child is speaking.
So as a gesture, the second batch was for them.
Mixing teaching with baking takes some practice if you want to get everything finished in an hour flat. This was one of the only classes where I had an assistant. She was able to take my camera and record the activity. My birthday coincides with the end of the semster and so this makes for a memorable activity to close the semester.
I don’t remember how many times I baked cookies with my classes but I know it was over 5 classes. And I know I did this for more than just one year. The time, money, and extra effort are on me. No one really cares too much and this type of extra effort at the school never translated into closer bonds, solidarity, or reciprocation from the school or the parents. In that respect, I was a sucker. The school and the students are happy to use me. In a country with a very sophisticated and conscious practice of showing appreciation, I am quite aware that my work was only that--my work..