Its 6:30 on a chilly autumn evening and I am making my way to the dining hall for dinner. It’s the second week of school and I notice myself still walking with the quick and intentional pace of someone who doesn’t feel at home. However, as soon as I step foot in the dining I could not feel more at ease. All six of my peng yous turn to me with excited eyes from a table full of food, now they’ll finally get to start eating. I can tell that everyone has contributed one of their favorite dishes to the communal meal: the three-bean salad screams Helen, the deconstructed bacon cheeseburgers are unmistakably Owen’s, the plate of assorted cheeses sits suspiciously close to Frannie, the steamed veggies are definitely Ben’s, the big plate of steaks is no doubt Kisara’s, and then there’s the chicken feet… this can only be Ryans doing, but where did he even manage to get them?! Seeing the bounty already on the table I go to get the two remaining staples of a Bridge Year China meal, white rice and barley tea. With the meal now ready to be eaten we all quiet down for our non-religious pseudo-saying grace pre-meal ritual. As we begin to hold hands we notice the lack of a designated group leader. One by one we turn to Ryan who begrudgingly accepts the implied invitation and starts the chain of hand squeezes. As soon as the hand squeeze gets back to Ryan everyone takes their chop sticks and places a piece of their favorite dish in the bowl of the person to their left, thus concluding our pre-meal ritual. The group quickly devolves into a fast-paced hyper specialized lingo achieved only through intimate familiarity, yao bu yao, gou le, XX, *double tap on table* “do you want some? that’s enough! TY, ty for the tea.” As soon as everyone’s small bowl is four thirds full we can finally chow down.
Throughout the meal the atmosphere is a sustained feverish bliss with chopsticks and laughter flying around the table. After multiple refills of rice and assorted dishes our meal comes to a close. We proudly admire the table we’ve left littered with grains of rice and gnawed bones. Everyone feels like they’ve eaten a bit past their full. Everyone feels comfortably fatigued. Everyone takes in the moment.
As each of us embarks on our adults journeys we carry a piece of each other’s favorite dish and a little bit of rice in our bowls.