Economic Empowerment

“Your education is the only wealth you can carry with you throughout your life”, (Dr. Song Pok-Shyn)

During a follow-up meeting to a Beijing women’s conference in China, I joined a group excursion to the Jinsong Vocational School, which was renowned for producing China’s top fashion designers and master chefs. We looked forward to learning about the programs that promoted girls’ education. We wondered if schools could alter the age-old gender stereotypes about women’s work. In theory, schools should be the first places for re-socializing the next generation with the ideals of gender equality. In practice, matters can take a different turn. The Jinsong School was a prime example of that.

At first glance, the School was impressive with its modern architecture and first-rate facilities. The classroom seats overlooked an elaborate model kitchen. There were heavy knives that could lop off a chicken’s neck­­—or a careless finger—with a single swing. Stainless steel cooking utensils lay in order like surgical instruments next to drum-sized woks. We could clearly see the tops of counters and stoves from an ingenious V-shaped mirror on the wall that captured everything below from a bird’s-eye view. It was a well-planned stage to showcase a master’s skills.

The chef entered the room like a head physician leading his interns. Dressed in white coats and trim cooking hats, the students stood proudly as China’s culinary crème de la crème. Their teacher’s tall hat elevated his stature to a wondrous and authoritative height. We stared as they stood before us for a brief inspection. There was something odd about this class of students: They were all boys. The teacher also was of prime male stock. Where were the girls?

There was much whispering in the crowd but not much protest. In the interest of letting the chef demonstrate how to cook Szechuan chili chicken with peanuts, we let this touchy issue pass. We were promised a cooking lesson followed by a tasting feast, and this soothed us into a cooperative mood. There would be plenty of time to talk about gender equality later.

The master chef awed us with his skill. Three chickens had been de-boned and cubed to mathematical precision. He deftly spilled the heaps of meat into the large wok for deep-frying. With the help of his students, he picked up the heavy pan and drained off the oil. He added chopped ginger, garlic, onions, and Chinese herbs. Cornstarch and water were soon followed by peanuts. Much to our surprise, he threw in a dash of ketchup. (He later confided that this was a nouvelle cuisine touch he added just for foreigners) We were all writing down the recipe furiously, noting important details like the correct temperature for frying. Suddenly, flames leaped up from the sides of the pan. To the chef’s delight, we gasped with amazement. He smiled and calmly tipped the pan to reduce the flames. It was a routine gesture in a master chef’s performance.

Afterwards came the question-and-answer session. A woman asked, “Do you also teach cooking to girls?”

“No,” he answered. “Cooking takes a lot of muscle and stamina, and it is much more suitable for boys.” We could hardly believe our ears. The Jinsong School admissions tests screened out boys who didn’t look strong enough to be cooks. On the other hand, the most attractive girls were admitted to the School as fashion designers. There were no female cooking students.

“What do you do at home?” asked another woman. “Do you cook, or does your wife have to do it all?” The mood was changing into a feminist inquisition. The chef answered that since he cooks all day at school, he hardly feels like doing it when he gets home. He lets his wife take over that job.

The questions continued. Someone asked if the administrators would allow a girl to pursue a cooking diploma if she wanted to learn to cook. The school director explained that each student can freely choose his or her program; however, girls don’t take up cooking because it was considered heavy work and too hard. The School also thought that it was unlikely that women chefs could get a job after graduation. In China, hotel and restaurant kitchens were part of a man’s world.

Maybe we should have been more understanding. After all, this prejudice against women chefs is not unique to China. Most famous chefs are men, even in France. Men and women may do the same job, but male chefs get high wages and praise. Women get the unpaid drudgery of daily meals. We suggested that a cultural revolution in China to promote equal work opportunities for women has to start somewhere and that a famous institution like Jinsong is a perfect place to kick it off. The school’s teachers and administrators acknowledged this sage advice with a polite smile.

As we left, I spied a group of women cooks behind the school canteen peeling vegetables. I wondered whether any of them had attended the lecture on Szechuan chili chicken with peanuts. If not, they were being deprived of a wonderful experience. Pity that the rules of tradition held fast even in a modern vocational school. Here, as elsewhere, boys are groomed to become famous chefs, while women are the dutiful assistants on the sidelines.

End of Section