A home away from home: Chinese international freshmen on campus create community through cooking

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Tony Luo cooks century egg with tofu, a traditional Chinese dish, at his dorm

Rayna Song, Reporter

Chinese international freshmen remaining on Northwestern’s Evanston campus are putting empty dorm kitchens to good use and finding community away from home.

As many of their peers left campus with the announcement of the remote quarter, some Chinese international students remained to avoid the difficulty of taking classes in a foreign time zone or because of travel restrictions. Yet despite being thousands of miles away from home, a few have turned to Asian recipes, finding a community of cooks in their dorm kitchens.

Weinberg freshman Tiger Wang said he used to cook once or twice every week before the campus closure. Now, he said he cooks four or five times a week, partly because of the distance between his dorm on north campus and the only open dining hall, the Foster-Walker Complex.

Wang said cooking by himself is also healthier than getting food from the dining hall because he knows the ingredients. He gets the food materials from both Whole Foods Market and Chowbus, an Asian food delivery app.

“I can buy all the things I need, like the oil, the salt, the vinegar,” Wang said. “I get the vegetables and meat, and I know what I used to cook.”

Cooking food in dorms does not usually take a long time, Wang said. However, while something simple like noodles takes less than 30 minutes, a meat dish might take up to 90.

Wang said he sometimes cooks with other Chinese students still on campus, which allows the Chinese community to become more united during the pandemic.

Fellow Weinberg freshman Annie Chen agreed that cooking can promote a sense of community on an empty campus.

“When I cook, I can ask other friends to come over and eat together,” Chen said. “This is kind of a good thing to actually have some social interaction.”

The University requires that freshmen living on campus use the Open Access Meal Plan, which costs more than $2,000 per quarter. Chen said she tends to cook in her dorm because of the time restraint of Foster-Walker.

She said she cooks lunch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, because she has classes from 9:30 a.m. to 1:50 p.m., while Foster-Walker is only open from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. for lunch.

Chen said while the quality of food at Foster-Walker isn’t bad, she enjoys cooking as a way to do something fun by herself. She said she had watched television cuisine programs in the past, and cooking on campus for her was like “turning theoretical knowledge into actual practical experience.”

“In terms of noodles and fried rice, I just use whatever ingredients I have and try to make it delicious,” Chen said. “In terms of actual dishes, there are recipes online.”

Weinberg freshman Tony Luo has been cooking in his dorm almost once per day since Spring Quarter started. He said his motivation for cooking comes partly from a cooking vlog that he started a few weeks ago.

Luo also said he now has much more free time to cook because he does not have as great a workload as he did in previous quarters. Last week, he cooked century egg with tofu, a traditional Chinese dish, to taste something from home.

“I really love cooking,” Luo said. “I really like being creative and innovate for a bit, and because I have some cooking experience, I know in which kind of combination it can taste good.”

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