The students file in after calling to me through my open front door. "Can we come in?" they ask, arms laden with vegetables and a large bag of rice. Half of the students find their way to the kitchen and start preparing dinner, while the others bombard me with questions about my apartment, "who lives in this other room?" they wonder. "Why didn't you make your bed?"
Does it seem strange that my students love to come over and cook dinner at my apartment? At first this idea was as foreign as anything else here, but later the reasons for it became clear. The dorm situation in China is similar to that in America because the students can't cook for themselves. The students seem to share a universal desire to make food, and being deprived of that option makes coming to my apartment a blessing.
It's funny because I always see a different side of students when they're preparing and cooking food. They're genuinely happy. They chatter in a mix of Chinese dialects and pepper their conversations with English. I meet them halfway with questions such as "OK了吗？“ and "为什么not?" Everything seems to fall into place without much planning. There are several reasons for this, but I suspect that one important factor contributing to this efficiency is that Sichuanese Food has a repertoire of about 25 standard dishes. The students have all made these dishes before - several times. When one student yells, "Chop the onions!" another student already knows exactly how many to chop and into which 2 dishes the onions will go.
While eating they are eager to put food into my bowl and they watch my face as I try it. Everything is delicious (as always). "I'm full, eat slowly," they begin to say in Chinese as they become full. Setting their chopsticks on their bowl they politely wait for everyone to finish eating.
After dinner the students mobilize: washing the dishes, mopping the floor, and putting everything back as it was. "Sorry, I must go now" they say, one by one, as they begin to leave. After walking the students out I pass through my living room and stop in the kitchen: both places are now cleaner than when the students arrived.
There are many things which make this event enjoyable: They make the food, wash the dishes, sweep and mop the floor, take out the garbage, wash the table...
But none of these things is as worthwhile as seeing the students truly happy when they transform my apartment into a restaurant.