Students Create a Taste of Home for the Lunar New Year

Students Create a Taste of Home for the Lunar New Year
Kara McDuffee

Jason Wang, Director of International Student Programs, understood the importance of the Lunar New Year for many of our Asian students, as well as the challenge of not being able to go home to celebrate the cherished holiday with family. That’s why he organized a special Lunar New Year celebration for students to share their culture, food, and traditions with their Brewster family.

On January 31, the eve of the Lunar New Year, students had their first opportunity to use the new Palmer Cafe Kitchen for its intended purpose: as a program space for students. In the planning and design of this industrial-sized kitchen, Brewster made sure that it could accommodate a large number of people and dishes, offering the perfect venue for the inaugural Lunar New Year cooking and sharing event. 

More than 40 students attended, and the Palmer Cafe Kitchen came to life as young chefs prepared and cooked their favorite dishes–often helping and learning from each other in the process. 

“I feel like it’s really special that our identities are being recognized within the campus,” said Mai Kasemsawade ’22, a student from Thailand. “It’s nice to see so many people here that can share these times together and come together to make these events so special.”

Earlier that day, several students spoke about their experiences with Lunar New Year in an All-School Meeting. Their anecdotes and photos helped educate the Brewster community about the holiday and what it means to them. However, the evening cooking event was only open to students who celebrated the Lunar New Year.

“I wanted to make this night solely about them and their celebration of the holiday,” said Mr. Wang. 

He prioritizes the international student experience in his work at Brewster, helping students with everything from their application and transition to Brewster, to their continued success and inclusion throughout their Brewster career. And part of that inclusion encompasses finding ways for them to bring aspects of home to campus.

For the Lunar New Year Celebration, Mr. Wang began planning weeks in advance. He reached out to Dan Corey, Brewster’s Director of Dining Services, to begin planning the event. Students were invited to sign up and share their favorite dishes and recipes. After reviewing the list, Chef Corey determined which dishes they could do, ordered the necessary ingredients, and arranged for supervision in the kitchen to help with the event.

“I love working with the students,” said Tom Kelliher, Executive Chef at Brewster and one of the chefs helping out for the night. “It seems like when I came in today, the students were quiet. And now they’re just so excited about cooking, and I just love to see that. It’s great interacting with them in the kitchen.”

You could feel the excitement when you walked into the kitchen after things were underway. It seemed that every station in the industrial-sized kitchen was in use as the students chopped vegetables, sliced meat, deep-fried egg rolls, tossed stir-fry, and boiled noodles—not to mention the continuous chatter among students as they helped one another, learning about the dishes from different cultures.

The sounds—and delicious smells—created an energetic atmosphere filled with life. But it was the smiles that really represented the evening.

“I see genuine smiles on their faces. I also see passion in sharing their culture and collaborating,” Mr. Wang said as he looked on at the activity around him, often getting interrupted by a student who wanted him to try a bite of their dish or hear a kitchen update. “Some of them are in my Mandarin class, and I joked with them that I’ve never seen them work so hard as they are working in the kitchen right now. They're so proud and happy to cook and share their culture.” 

‘Happy,’ ‘successful,’ and ‘special’ were just some of the words that the students used to describe how they were feeling throughout the night. One student even said, “It makes me feel like I’m back at home again.”

“It’s a special day for us here, just like it’s a special day back home. And it’s awesome to be here, in the Rogers, and get these special privileges,” said Michael Yang ’22, an Asian-American student with homes in China and California. When asked about how he felt about using the new kitchen, he exclaimed with a big smile, “Finally! I’ve been waiting so long to be able to cook my own food. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to cook. I love seeing people happy because of what I cook.”

Other students shared excitedly about the dishes they were preparing, many of which were taught to them by their parents. Trays of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Thai dishes came out on a rotating basis (although they didn’t last long on the tables before they were scooped up and eaten). Students then took advantage of the many seating areas in the open space to dine together and enjoy each other’s company as they cherished the special day.

As Mr. Wang looked around at the joy on the students’ faces, he was already making plans to do it again for future holidays. He also discussed the possibility of opening up to the whole school to allow for more cultural sharing between students of diverse backgrounds.

“I think that one of the best and easiest ways to bring our cultures to the community is to have conversations with each other,” Mai Kasemsawade ’22 agreed. “When we share different aspects of things we have in common or do differently, we learn from each other and both grow as a person and as a community.” 

After the success of the first official student cooking event in the Palmer Cafe kitchen, we expect many more opportunities of cultural sharing and celebration to follow.

See a photo album from the event here.

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