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A Taste of China

BU students teach native culture to adopted children


It was a typical Saturday morning scene. Parents took long pulls of their coffee while they watched their children crawl and romp about on a rainbow-colored floor mat. But this was no neighborhood Gymboree class or playdate. Each of the families shared something unique: all had adopted Chinese children.

Marty Dugan (ENG’87, GSM’96) and his wife adopted six-year-old Lea from Anhui Province and her three-year-old sister, Laila, from Guangxi Province as infants. “We try to fold as many experiences as we can in their lives,” he says.

The Dugans were among a handful of families who were at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center to take part in the BU MIT Dumplings Playgroup, started last semester by the Boston University China Care Fund and MIT China Care.

Usually these student groups raise money for their parent organization, the China Care Foundation, which funds surgeries and postmedical care for Chinese orphans. But on weekends, with the foundation’s encouragement, member clubs host playgroups for families of adopted Chinese children.

The BU and MIT clubs merged forces last year and scheduled their new playgroup to alternate Saturdays with Harvard’s well-established program. Now, nearly every weekend, parents can swap stories about their adoption experiences, as college students (mostly of Chinese descent) teach children about their native culture through stories, crafts, and cooking.

Boston University China Care Fund Dumplings Playgroup

Geraldine Lai (COM’14), one of the BU coordinators of the Dumplings Playgroup, introduces the morning’s cooking activity.

“Dumplings Playgroup is a great way for parents to meet other families who are similar,” says Richard Cheng (SMG’13), the BU club’s president. “It is a very small group of people, and it’s not as easy for them to find each other.”

And as beneficial as the playgroup is for the assembled families, it’s also “instant gratification” for club members, says Geraldine Lai (COM’14), one of two BU playgroup coordinators who meet weekly with volunteers to plan activities. “We don’t get to go to orphanages and meet the children we help,” she says. “So it’s great to have a program on weekends that can help adopted children from China.”

Just after 10:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Lai calls the children from their play. “We need everyone to wash their hands so we can start cooking,” she says. Toddlers and elementary-aged children head to the sink while nearly a dozen BU and MIT volunteers finish measuring out ingredients for tangyuan, glutinous rice balls filled with sweet paste. Lai explains that tangyuan is usually eaten on the last day of the Chinese New Year, during the Lantern Festival. Its round shape, she says, symbolizes unity.

Each child sits at the table and is given a bowl of rice flour, another with water, and a plastic plate for kneading the soft dough. Parents, volunteers, and kids dribble water over the flour and gently massage it into a thick paste.

“Does that feel good?” Bob Appleyard asks his six-year-old daughter, Mae, adopted from Chongqing Province. “Give it a good squeeze.” Tina Choi (CAS’14), the other BU playgroup coordinator, asks Mae what color she would like to dye her tangyuan. “I want purple and wed,” she lisps. Choi drops some red food coloring into Mae’s dough, which turns a light pink once kneaded through.

Boston University China Care Fund Dumplings Playgroup, tangyuan in a ginger broth

Tangyuan in a ginger broth.

Lai then instructs the children to pinch their dough into ping-pong-sized balls: “We want them all to be the same size, right?”

Eric Liu (SMG’14) helps Laila Dugan shape her tangyuan. “Dude, ours is beautiful,” he says with a big grin. “Look at it!”

The teams of two then flatten their dough balls, place a small piece of Chinese brown sugar on top, and roll them back into shape. An MIT volunteer brings the pastel-colored balls to the nearby kitchen, where she will drop them in a ginger broth to boil. The tangyuan is ready when all the balls float to the top.

Meanwhile Lai leads the children to another table, where they make dragon puppets out of construction paper, streamers, and popsicle sticks. This year’s zodiac sign is the dragon, she explains, which symbolizes prosperity, intelligence, and honor.

Kiley York, 7, adopted from Hunan Province, diligently colors her dragon’s head and tail while her mother, Leeann, looks on. This is the second time she has driven more than an hour, from Litchfield, N.H., to attend the Dumplings Playgroup. “It’s not as diverse culturally up there,” Kiley’s mother says. “It means something to me, and I hope that it means something to her.” It meant something to Kiley’s 10-year-old brother, Joshua, from Chongqing Province, who fell in love with dumplings when they cooked them the first time the Yorks attended the playgroup.

Boston University China Care Fund Dumplings Playgroup

Choi feeds tangyuan to six-year-old Mae.

Noon approaches quickly, and one of the MIT students emerges with a steaming pot of tangyuan. The children circle the table, anxious to see, and taste, their creations, bobbing in the bowls of warm ginger broth.

Mae Appleyard nibbles her pink tangyuan. “You like it, Mae?” her dad asks. She is too busy chewing to respond.

Mae’s mother, Mary, looks on and smiles. She is impressed by the BU and MIT students’ dedication and recalls one playgroup where students built a replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City out of cardboard. “All the attention they give,” she says, “it’s awesome.”

The last two BU MIT Dumplings Playgroups of the academic year will be on Saturday, March 31, and Saturday, April 28, from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, 38 Ash St., Boston. For more information, visit the BU China Care Fund’s website or contact the group via email.

Harvard China Care also hosts Dumplings Playgroups, on alternating weekends, at the First Church in Cambridge basement, 11 Garden St., Cambridge. Check the group’s website for upcoming dates.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

4 Comments on A Taste of China

  • Sarah on 03.26.2012 at 1:12 pm

    This is awesome! Some friends from my home in Ohio have adopted kids from China, and this is exactly the kind of thing they look for. Thanks for your hard work, guys! :)

    • Natalie on 11.06.2015 at 4:38 pm

      Mae is my neighbor she is so cute!!

  • Herlie on 03.26.2012 at 5:40 pm


    • Herlie on 03.26.2012 at 5:41 pm


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