One for the History Books: How History gives Jack He food for thought

By Andy Peñafuerte III
01/21/2022

It is almost midnight and the kitchen lights are still on. By the countertop, Jack He is rolling butter cubes into the heap of flour, glancing at the cookbook beside him. Jack’s craving on a chilly night has turned into a full-blown cooking project: he is making a galette, his first-ever pastry dough “made with love, care, and nostalgia.”

Jack developed an appetite for all things delicious at a young age. He grew up seeing his mother watching cooking videos and amassing cookbooks. Trying out new cooking projects, just like that galette, gives him great satisfaction.

Food connects Jack to his background and other cultures, thus becoming his way to explore history. As he goes further, he slowly finds out how history encapsulates the human experience and gives sense to the ambiguities of society.

 


 

Food for Thought

Whenever Jack He goes to the sunny highlands of Qinghai, his mother’s hometown, he often gets a nutty treat from his grandfather. Tsampa, as the delicacy is called, is a combination of ground roasted barley, which gives its signature nuttiness, and butter tea (or puer tea mixed with yak butter). The dense and nutrient-rich dough, eaten without baking, makes one full for the entire day. For Jack, tsampa is nostalgia: a dish that magically transports him to Tibetan pastures teeming with meandering yaks and reminds him of his grandfather’s “virtuous and kind approach to life.”

 

Jack admits that his summertime vacations and gastronomic experiences in his grandfather’s homeland are among the few moments when he can get in touch with this part of his life. As a child, he faced an influx of personal opinions and diverging interpretations whenever he tried diving deeper into his background. 

“I really thought that history was just about facts,” Jack says as he recalled observing how people lived their own truths when he was young. “I realized it was an immature way of looking at it because there are different perceptions of reality, which are all suspended in the grand scale of history.”

Jack’s childhood hobbies were related mainly to his parents’ passions. At home, he would experiment in the kitchen, and his mother, Ms. Ya Yiner, would gladly share her cookbooks with him. On the court, Jack and his father, Mr. He Xiao, would play one-on-one, with the boy mostly losing against his athletic dad. It was until the tenth grade when his interest in history picked up steam, after he met his advisor, Dr. Deborah Smith Johnston.

“History can be relevant,” Dr. Smith Johnston recalls telling Jack in their Individuals and Societies class. As they studied the Cold War, issues in the Middle East, and other uprisings in recent times, Jack felt the gravity of Dr. Smith Johnston’s succinct message. He understood how looking at the past could be the same as asking the right questions to change today’s direction.

In the Keystone Model United Nations interdisciplinary unit supervised by Dr. Smith Johnston, he engaged in the Food and Agricultural Organization, offering a different viewpoint on issues affecting the Middle East by exploring the Israeli position. Meanwhile, for his Capstone essay, Jack returned to his roots and wrote a case study on mural protection and restoration in the Potala Palace, a renowned heritage site in Xizang that he had never visited. He interviewed his grandfather to better understand the historical background of the Tibetan fortress. Later in the summer, he interned for beijingkids and wrote a nostalgic piece about his grandfather’s tsampa. He then entered the John Locke Essay Competition with a piece about how a punitive criminal justice philosophy has resulted in a high incarceration rate in the United States. His multi-disciplinary analysis won him a very high commendation in the prestigious worldwide contest.

Dr. Smith Johnston was not surprised when Jack told her that he would take a Higher Level History course in the Diploma Programme (DP) in high school, knowing he would succeed with his exceptional analytical thinking and writing skills. She supervised Jack on his Extended Essay about French colonial repression during the Algerian Civil War and its influence on modern states. His intention to look at the philosophy and moral dimension of the conflict, in addition to his work ethic and systematic research approach, truly impressed Dr. Smith Johnston, a practicing historian herself.

“I owe so much to Dr. J,” Jack says of his advisor, using his term of endearment, “because she is the one who got me into history and showed me how it can be so variegated, extensive, and multi-disciplinary.” In his three years of learning with Dr. Smith Johnston, Jack says he has picked up not only technical skills but also a historian’s perspective: sifting through various sources and biases and uncovering insights from factual down to the subconscious level.

Jack sought to apply this learning to even more challenging intellectual pursuits. In the first half of 2021, he was admitted into the Pioneer Research Program and wrote a comprehensive analysis of the Carter-era foreign policy of the United States and its lasting geopolitical effects, especially in the Middle East. Vanderbilt University Associate Professor Dr. Juan Floyd-Thomas, the scholar who supervised Jack on the paper, was impressed by how he was the only student in that year’s cohort who tackled a topic with “obvious relevance and considerable potential in assessing cross-cultural exchange … in geopolitics and the global economy.”

“To me, history encapsulates the human experience,” Jack says, “because it can be very personal, it can be about the story of a common family, it can reveal many things about the people in society and the time they live in.”

Now, Jack is preparing for his arrival at Yale University, eager to join courses that reflect the trends in history studies. One such course that makes him feel flushed is “The History of Food”, which dishes up concepts ranging from changing taste preferences to the impact of colonialism, technology, and globalization on food. He is also keen on the prospect of publishing academic work or creative writing about Tibetan culture and his grandfather’s tsampa.

“So those things are in terms of academics,” he says. “On the social side, I see how Yale students are sociable, confident leaders. I would like to collaborate with them. I would love to gain different insights, skills, information, and wisdom from them because I love teaching others.”

 


 

A Moment of Redemption

Thirty seconds remaining on the clock... Player #10 dashes through the ring, passes the ball to Player #2… and gives it back to #10!

Nineteen seconds left… #10 throws the ball to #33, shoots… and… misses it!

Jack was called in as a substitute during the final three-and-a-half minutes of the Great Wall Shootout (GWSO) Pool B game in December 2019, when Keystone faced off against the International School of Beijing (ISB). Having been a benchwarmer in the past two days of the tournament, the lanky Player #10 entered the court ablaze and alert but could only do so much. He tried to score but was repeatedly outmaneuvered by the opposing player. 

“I couldn’t imagine how our boys were thinking at the time,” Keystone team coach Allen Chen says. “The ball was stolen from us, and then one opponent dunked straight in our faces. Jack could not even dribble the ball properly because we were losing by 43 points.”

Coach Chen really felt for Jack, especially after that tense and humiliating moment. Immediately after the game, he bucked Jack up and told him: “You will find your time if you stay on.”

Jack has been a particularly sporty kid, according to his father, Mr. He Xiao. From playing ice hockey, tennis, golf, soccer, and badminton at a young age, Jack eventually gravitated to basketball since it was also Mr. He’s prime sport in high school. The older He played as a point guard for Beijing No. 4 High School and was a member of its basketball team that successfully represented China in numerous international games for high school athletes in the mid-1980s.

Mr. He first trained Jack to be a power forward but found his son’s physique suited the point guard position. In their practice sessions, Mr. He explained that a point guard understands his opponents very quickly and adjusts his team's offensive or defensive rhythm. And when other players used their towering heights and bulky physique to their advantage, Mr. He played smarter and ran the game with his solid defense that he had built through practicing longer than others. But before reaching this status, Mr. He had also been a benchwarmer.

“I have failed more than I have won,” Mr. He recalls telling Jack. “People will always remember victories, but you should never forget the times when you fail.”

Weeks before the GWSO tournament, Jack had been preparing so hard to prove his worth as the team’s last pick in the 2019-2020 athletic season tryouts. He trained hard, but how could he improve if the team always left him on the bench? He watched them being demolished by other teams, game after game. It destroyed their morale. It wrecked Player #10. So, when he entered in the most crucial minutes of the tournament, why couldn’t he play well? Why couldn’t he score even one shot?

Jack’s missed moment of redemption almost led him to a freefall. He trained more with his teammate Kristopher Pockla, pushing themselves hard to shoot 300 balls a day in an attempt to bring out their “best versions”. There were times, Jack says, when he started and ended each day in the gym, forming an obsession that eventually led to frustration. It took a toll on his mental state and physical capacity.

That entire episode made him realize that working hard was different from working smart, and that putting in the hours was not enough to beat the game. It hit him that what matters should not be the game itself but the change it brings him.

“Even if you weren’t playing, you have already been on this stage,” Coach Chen told Jack after that crucial fight. “If you stay on, you will know how to lead others and tell them what it is like to leave the bench, go to the court, and play in front of many people.”

Jack was promoted as a regular player in the following athletic season, with a burning motivation to beat ISB. The season passed with Keystone’s basketball team improving their standing, although still losing against ISB. His moment of redemption finally came in the 2021-2022 season, in his farewell match. Now, as the Keystone High School Basketball Team captain, he rallied his teammates to defeat ISB—the team they thought were unbeatable—three times. The latest was at the finals of International Schools Alliance China (ISAC) Division 1 finals, where they emerged victorious against their prime opponent in their home game, at the very same court where Jack had stumbled two years prior. The Keystone team finished their ISAC campaign as runners-up.

“Six years…,” Jack shared on his WeChat Moments after the game, “…still remember my first basketball tryout in Grade 7 like it was yesterday … then came the ups and downs: the times we got whooped by 50 …. The times I just felt like I wasn’t talented enough. Insecurities, frustration, and even tears. Everybody was telling me. Be confident. Slowly I found my role on the team. This year been special [sic], surreal even … Leading the team to the ISAC D1 finals for the first time in school history. Being in a team in which everyone likes being around each other. What more can I ask for?”

 


 

Let Interests Guide You

Jack was already awake at six in the morning, waiting for two friends who promised to be there. But they bailed on him. On the very day when Yale University would announce the results of early decision applications.

He turned on his laptop, went to the application status site, and refreshed the page. And then a video popped up. Five stencil images of bulldogs overlaid on a navy-blue background, singing. Then a large white text appeared.

CONGRATULATIONS

The video was over even before Jack had the time to react.

He was alone when the result came. He sat for 20 minutes, wondering if he was truly awake. He went to the bathroom and washed his face.

He came back, checked his laptop again. The same video appeared.

Jack snapped a photo of the bulldogs and sent it immediately to his parents and friends. He stormed out of his dorm room and rushed to his two friends, who, apparently, were still asleep. Jack woke them up with the news, which spread like wildfire on his dorm floor, and later, in the entire school. It was until the end of that day, December 16, after everyone congratulated him on his acceptance, when reality started to sink in.

For many Keystone students and other community members, Jack may not be the “Chinese Gordon Ramsay” anymore but the first Keystone student admitted to Yale University.

“Honestly,” he says, “I don’t feel that much pressure even after this acceptance because the people around me—my friends, family, and peers—still see me as Jack. And I truly appreciate that. I don’t want to have an inflated sense of self-esteem. I don’t want them to treat me differently. Rather, I hope I can be an example for students. I want them to shoot for schools that fit their personality and interests. A lot of people think that Yale is unachievable, and that’s what I thought too.”

Jack’s teachers describe him as a well-balanced yet nonchalant student. Even his advisor Dr. Smith Johnston wonders how he manages to sleep early despite the demanding DP and college application schedule. His college advisor, Director of College Counseling Percy Jiang, notes Jack’s undeniable drive to improve himself continuously and keen insight to grasp opportunities while in the class or in the court. Meanwhile, his English teacher, Nehemiah Olwande, praises Jack for always going the extra mile in all aspects of campus life while remaining low-key. He is also impressed by Jack’s “deeper sensitivity” in analyzing texts and receiving feedback. In their dorm building, Mr. Olwande says, Jack is “a role model for the boys”; in the varsity team, he is regarded as a charismatic athlete-leader. His basketball teammates joke that Jack is better off as a captain than a chef.

“How can he make us a hamburger that is so disgusting and so salty?” his teammate Martin Chen shares, referring to their previous summer outing when Jack offered to cook dinner, but failed miserably. “But seriously, I really look up to you, Jack, because you have been a great captain to us, and also a teacher so good that you can become a life coach!”

“We started improving little things together,” Ethan Han, one of the team captains, says, “And with Jack, we finally established a strong and well-bonded team and a team culture that is our very own."

There is still half a year before Jack graduates from Keystone, so he wants to make the most of his high school life. “And the best that we can do,” he says, “is to be guided by our interests.”

In the meantime, he awaits the time when he can show off his cooking skills in his new community. He wonders what it is like to whip up culinary projects there in the middle of the night. And a crazy thought that excites Jack even more is teaching a hypothetical course at Yale! He already has a title for that: “From Kimchi to Sauerkraut: Fermented Foods and Their Funky Histories.”