The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop

Labour of Love

by Jie Chen


My mom was a high school teacher in China, where teachers work long hours. More than 10 hours a day is normal. Because of the demanding job, the government provided teachers free accommodation on campus so that they could balance their work and family life. 

Many times, my mother would greet me with a warm and delicious meal when I came home from school. Sometimes it was crispy spring rolls, sometimes it was steaming rice with stir fries, sometimes it was handmade dumplings wrapped with her love. 

“Cooking is a service,” my mother would say. “A labour of love.”

My hometown is by the Yangtze River in the centre of China. The temperature in winter can be as low as 1 degree Celsius. It seems not as harsh as the winters in Canada, but because of the humidity from the river and with no central heating, winter in my hometown was bitterly cold. 

After the long walk home from school, my hands would be ice cold and puffy red. My mom would greet me with a big smile. The first thing I would do was place my cold hands under her belly. The warmth of her body slowly warmed up my poor frozen hands. 

After having dinner, I would do my homework like a typical good girl. 

One day when I was in Grade One, I came home and saw no sign of Mom. No body to warm up my cold hands, no delicious food to fill my empty belly. A note left by Mom said that she would be home late because of a long meeting at work.

I decided to surprise Mom by preparing dinner for her. I took out rice from a rice jar, poured it inside the rice cooker, plugged the wire in and pushed the On button.

While waiting for the rice to be cooked I danced and sang in the kitchen, waiting for the magic: a delicious meal would appear in 20 minutes.

Mom came in the door. Her beaming smile was radiating like sunshine.

“How was your day, my little panda?” mom asked.

“Mom, please cover your eyes,” I said. Mom covered her eyes. I took her by the hands and led her slowly to the kitchen.

“Surprise!” I exclaimed, and opened the lid of the rice cooker.

“Oh, no!” I cried. The rice had turned to charcoal.

My mother explained that I did not add water in the rice cooker. But she held me against her warm body, caressing my hair gently.

My little panda,” she said. “This is my best dinner ever. Thank you.”

Forty years later, both my mom and I still remember the first meal I made. A well-respected teacher in the community, at the age of 75, my mom is still teaching. She has turned her duty of teaching to a passion and a labour of love.

Cooking is a labour of love. When we add the ingredient of love, even charcoaled rice becomes a wonderful meal, an uneaten meal that is still cherished 40 years later by a daughter and a mom, a daughter who has herself become a mom.