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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Shen me shui jian chi wan fan?

Standing in the corner of the kitchen, two blank-eyed Americans catch glimpses of Mama cooking. They stuff their cold hands in their pockets, still wet with the smell of the vegetables they just washed. Their curious eyes follow how she uses a lighter to put fire on the stove.

Finally, Mama turns around and notices them. She mumbles something in Mandarin, but they don’t understand so they laugh, casting nervous glances in each other’s direction.

“Wo… bang mang?” the girl stutters in broken Mandarin, hoping for a chance to help.

Mama picks up a red bag, probably seasoning of some kind, and hands it to the boy. She then scoops out the frying potatoes from her wok into a bowl with a grace that suggests years of experience. She points at the bag, then at the potatoes.

Trembling, the boy shakes the bag lightly. Nothing comes out. He tries again. Nothing comes out. He tries a little harder. Too much.

He slowly turns his head towards Mama with a sheepish smile, and her laughter fills the room. The boy’s shoulders relax a little. He’s not in trouble.

The rest of the hour is spent cleaning, serving food, and a whole lot of watching Mama. It’s progress, probably.

The next day, when the two slightly more determined Americans come into the kitchen, Mama points to a cutting board. This wouldn’t be a success at home, but here, it is.