Cooking Up New Experiences

There’s always something special and fulfilling about spending time with someone whose background is different than your own. The cross-cultural experience allows for new perspectives and understanding, more than anything anyone could learn from a classroom. This past week through the ConvoPartners Program at the Intensive English Institute, I got a taste of this unique learning opportunity—both literally and figuratively.

The ConvoPartners Program is a semester-long activity the IEI arranges so international students have a chance to pair up with residents of the Champaign-Urbana area on a weekly basis. It helps students practice their English, and allows both partners to learn a bit more about each other and their cultures. My ConvoPartner, Renata, and I had an exceptionally fun evening this past week, cooking and sharing stories from our different backgrounds.

Renata Zakirova is a first-year IEI student from Russia. She surprised me in our regular weekly meet-up by telling me that we were going to make one of her favorite dishes—Russian meat dumplings. I was so eager to learn a little more about Russian cuisine, and hang out with her in the process.

From the moment I arrived at her apartment, Renata was so hospitable—even giving me a cute hedgehog apron and slippers so that I would be comfortable. I felt at home in her company even before we started cooking the homemade meal.

Renata began by showing me how to roll the dough for the dumplings from scratch. Sometimes in American culture, we tend to like things that can be done quickly and instantly. The fact that we were starting from the bare basics even for the dumpling dough was rare for me, and from the start I knew the experience would be one to remember!

After kneading the dough, Renata showed me how to make a lemon cake for dessert so we would have something to do while the dough was resting. As I mixed the batter, the tangy smell of fresh lemons reminded me of home, and I was able to share a little bit about my home cooking background.

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We started assembling the dumplings after the dough had fully rested, and combined a mixture of ground pork and beef for the filling. Renata showed me how to put the dumplings together, looking like a potter as she carefully crafted each one. Slowly, one by one, we pinched the dumplings to perfection and they were finally assembled. We then put them in the water to boil, and as they cooked, I got to hear a little bit more about Renata’s story.

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Renata said that she and her family used to make these dumplings at home. Her mother and grandmother did everything from scratch, including grinding up the meat. Between stories about her brothers growing up and what primary school was like, I gained a deeper insight into Renata’s story. Her openness encouraged me to tell mine as well, and we had a great time laughing sharing old memories from our pasts. Renata and I got lost in good conversation, and we had to remind ourselves to check on the food to make sure nothing would overcook.

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Thankfully, we managed to get everything out of the oven and off the stovetop right on time. After adorning the table with berries, salads, and sauces, it was finally time to eat! The minute I bit into the homemade dumplings, I was so pleased and proud that we made such a great dish. Then, after dinner and dessert, Renata and I finished up with a customary tea party. For over an hour we sat, building memories and friendship over a comforting mug of Russian tea.

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Finally, it was time for me to leave, and I left the slippers and cozy atmosphere reluctantly. It was wonderful getting to know each other better while building a new friendship. When I got back to my dorm, I realized that the meal we shared and made together was delightful…but the company we shared was even better.

Written by IEI intern, Maria Rubin De Celis

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