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I had 11 roommates over my four years of Harvard, none of them for more than a year. That makes me sound rather dysfunctional, but I prefer to see my roommate roulette as a function of transferring Houses while taking a year off during college. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
Sophomore year, I was a floater in Quincy House, meaning that I was randomly assigned to complete another rooming group. I landed with a group of three close-knit girls in a two-bedroom apartment in 20 DeWolfe Street, the building of campus envy because it had cable television and, more importantly for me, a kitchen.
Two roommates were, like me, native New Yorkers. But the third, Ali, was a 5’10”, blonde-haired, blue-eyed varsity basketball player from a rural town in Western Pennsylvania with no stoplights.
We shared a bedroom, but we maintained an air of formal politeness, of “So how was your day?” queries as we were brushing our teeth. She was fair and strikingly tall, especially in heels. My growth spurt as a Chinese American had been all of two inches between 5’0” and 5’2.” I balanced The Harvard Crimson and an applied-math concentration. She was literally a Gov jock. She was the only one in her high school ever to come to Harvard. My competitive New York City high school sent 11 kids to Harvard my year alone. She was so white it seemed almost ethnic.
But the kitchen became the common space to bridge the strangeness between Ali and myself, a place lit by harsh fluorescent lights where our aloofness slowly broke down.
When we first met, Alison had never tasted sushi or dumplings. She was fascinated with the strange packages with squiggly writing I brought back from my shopping trips to Chinatown. The first time she caught a whiff of the pungent smell of pickled Korean kimchee, she winced and thought to herself, “Something is wrong with this.”
Ali came from the “Good Housekeeping” school of domesticity: fluffy yellow cakes, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese.
I corralled her into folding dumplings with strict instructions: Don’t make the dough wrapper too soggy; don’t put too much meat filling or you will not be able to close it up. She helped me and my friends make 800 pieces of sushi and 300 dumplings for a pre-frosh welcoming reception. In turn, she taught me about the Super Bowl (she was a Steelers fan) and helped me fill out my first (and only) March Madness bracket.
But the kitchen also provoked some tension. Ali was used to having a sparkling-clean kitchen after and between each and every meal. At my house, there was a never-ending cycle of pots, pans, and woks on the stove. When my mom finished cooking lunch, she would immediately start cooking dinner. And the rice cooker was always on, if not in cooking fresh rice then in keeping rice from the last meal warm. Cooking was a continual process, of defrosting or marinating and soaking. The concept of a kitchen that could be turned on and then off was completely foreign.
But I adjusted.
Cooking together provided us comfort as we rode the emotional turbulence of college-girl careers: the crushes, the bad grades, the hangovers, the awards, the post-teenage angst, the team politics.
One day during spring break we drove out to Walden Pond and spent the afternoon taking photos—a refuge away from the stresses of campus.
We made dinner for ourselves that night. She made angel-hair pasta and salad with homemade croutons. I made stir-fried beef with rice. On impulse, I threw in some of her sun-dried tomatoes into the pan with the beef and red peppers. We laughed, and it was surprisingly good—worth an appearance on Top Chef one day.
For her 21st birthday, I bought a black wooden folding picture frame with spaces for two photos. I carefully selected a picture of Ali and one of me from that afternoon at Walden Pond. In the photo she is laughing and looking away from the camera with her head jauntily tilted towards the sky. It is completely unposed, one I took when she wasn’t ready.
Of the pictures we took that day at Walden Pond and throughout our sophomore year, not a single one was of just us together. Only that wooden frame holds us both.
It’s been almost more than 14 years since we were roommates. She’s kept that frame even though the glass has cracked. Today Ali works in New York City as a hedge fund headhunter, pulling in a seven-figure salary in what, on the surface, seems a Sex-and-the-City lifestyle. Sushi is now a regular part of her urban diet. She eats kimchee with relish, having embraced its fermented essence.
Of the 11 roommates I had, Ali and I started the furthest apart, yet she’s the one to whom I’m closest today. I’m certain it’s because of that kitchen.
Today we gossip and commiserate via instant messaging and text messaging. She comes to the Sundance Film Festival with my friends. We watched the Super Bowl at her place last year, where she went all out. Ali makes great chicken wings. Maybe I’ll learn how to make them from her someday.
Jennifer 8. Lee ’98-’99, a former Crimson vice-president, is the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.
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