Student’s IDEA Connects Cooking, Communication, Chinese Cuisine

Through his IDEA grant project, James Lun hopes to introduce Chinese cuisine to more people.

IDEA grant student Jia ‘James’ Lun cooking Asian-style potatoes on June 20, 2016. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

IDEA grant student Jia ‘James’ Lun cooking Asian-style potatoes on June 20, 2016. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Jia “James” Lun’s IDEA Grant project is about more than just a love for delectable dishes.

This fall, Lun ’17 (CLAS), who is originally from China, will blend his cooking and communication skills to create a website titled ‘From “C” to “C”: Chinese Cuisine in Connecticut’ that will teach American and international students about the history of Chinese food in the United States. It will feature a blog, cuisine tutorials, and a few of Lun’s favorite recipes.

“I’m really thankful to have this opportunity,” he says. “I’m going to introduce Chinese cuisine to more people.”

A dish is a message from the chef. It not only reflects the skill, but also the personality and lifestyle of the chef. — James Lun

Through UConn’s Office of Undergraduate Research, the IDEA Grant program provides funding to support student-designed and student-led projects; this year, 35 students, including Lun, received grants.

Lun’s project will help prepare him for life after UConn as it relates to his Asian American Studies minor and his individualized major, an interdisciplinary field study called consumer behavior that brings together marketing and communications. When Lun graduates next May, he hopes to find a job helping companies in the United States and China work together.

“I’d like to serve as a bridge between Chinese companies and American firms,” he says, explaining that his job ideally would allow him to travel often to see his mother.

Lun, a 21-year-old permanent resident of the United States, grew up in Guangzhou, China, which he likens to New York City. The only child of Ming Feng Wu and the late HuaGuang Lun, he arrived in the U.S. territory of Guam when he was a teenager to live with his uncle.

From an early age, Lun learned how to be independent. He held jobs, learned about the importance of exercise and eating healthy food, and learned to cook – mostly on his own. He found recipes online, played with ingredients, and learned how to control taste by adding sauces without measuring.

“I cook based on my feeling or experience,” he says. “A dish is a message from the chef. It not only reflects the skill, but also the personality and lifestyle of the chef.”

Cooking has become Lun’s hobby, and it’s one that he wants to share with his mother. Last winter break, he traveled to China – a journey that took 30 hours – and cooked for Wu, learning a few new techniques from her in the process. He was also reminded to cook in a healthy way.

“To me, there is no perfect way to cook a single dish,” Lun says. “Every time I cook, it’s a new and unique experience.”

At UConn, Lun has thrived, succeeding academically while also holding various jobs and getting involved in campus activities. He’s taken notes for the UConn Center for Students with Disabilities, and is a mentor for UConn’s First Year Program. This summer, in addition to a part-time job on campus, he has a public relations internship with the Chinese American Higher Education Institute, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that helps college students studying abroad.

When Lun arrived in Storrs, he immersed himself in his new environment by visiting UConn’s many different departments. This helped him adjust to life in Connecticut, improve his communication skills, and he was able to meet new people, including Cathy Schlund-Vials, associate professor of English and Asian American Studies and director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute.

“I’m a person who loves to talk to people,” Lun says. “If I didn’t walk around, I wouldn’t have gotten to know Cathy.”

Schlund-Vials plays an important role in Lun’s educational pursuits, serving as his primary contact for his individualized major, and she describes him as “that rare person who is truly curious and capacious in his thinking.” He is invested in his work, consistently seeks for ways to improve his writing, and is not shy about asking questions, she adds.

“Affable and generous, James is someone who really listens to those around him and enjoys learning from others,” Schlund-Vials says.

While modest, Lun describes himself in a similar way, explaining that he keeps busy, looks for self-development opportunities, and tries to learn something from everyone – from classmates and professors to coworkers at his summer job with UConn Facilities Operations.

Jia 'James' Lun, right, learned some of his cooking techniques from his mother, left .
Jia ‘James’ Lun, right, learned some of his cooking techniques from his mother. He hopes she will be able to attend his graduation next spring.

As he prepares for his final year of college, Lun thinks of his mother. Wu has not yet visited UConn, and he plans to invite her for his graduation next spring.

Since 1974, more than 2,000 students have graduated from UConn’s Individualized Major Program, which encourages experiential learning. In the fall of 2015, 5 percent of UConn’s 23,407 undergraduates were international students, representing 111 countries.

Lun says he could have opted to attend a school with more Chinese students, but he chose UConn, an environment very different from China or Guam, because of the educational opportunity.

“I came to Connecticut to challenge myself,” he says.