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Not Enough Room For Chopsticks

AS I was gathering up my books and papers at the close of my class in English for foreign students, I found three earnest-looking Chinese men standing before my desk. After some nudging by his companions, the middle one, Mr. Wu, stepped forward. ``We want ...,'' he began hesitatingly. ``We want ... invite you to paaty.''

``Dinna paaty,'' added Mr. Chin.

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``A dinner party. That would be nice,'' I said.

Their anxious looks gave way to smiles.

``When are you going to have this party?''

``Next Friday. Is good?'' asked Mr. Lee.

I agreed that Friday would be fine.

``He cook,'' said Mr. Wu. He pointed to Mr. Lee.

``Do you have an apartment?'' I asked him.

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``No. Live in dormitory. He have apartment.'' He indicated Mr. Chin.

``Oh, the party is at Mr. Chin's,'' I said.

``No. We come your house,'' said Mr. Lee.

My house? I was living on a half-time teaching assistant's salary while enrolled in graduate school. My ``house'' was a studio apartment - a ``garden apartment'' it had been described at the housing bureau. The two windows in my one room with ``kitchen'' were half below ground. By gazing upward when the light well was not full of leaves I could get a glimpse of grass. Furnishings were a studio couch, an armchair, one straight chair, and a table that doubled as a desk.

The kitchen ell had at one time been half of the closet. Between the two-burner stove, sink, and the refrigerator there was just room to stand. The refrigerator opened from the top, and the only counter space to work on was the top of that refrigerator. When in the midst of preparing a meal I wanted a bit more butter or some milk, everything on top of the refrigerator had to go on the stove, in the sink, or on the floor.

``It's awfully small,'' I said doubtfully.

``No problem. We bring everything,'' he assured me.

Four people could eat dinner in my apartment if the food was brought prepared. I could move the table out and borrow three folding chairs from a neighbor.

``Well, all right,'' I said.

The next day when class began Mr. Wu raised his hand, then stood up. ``Chinese boys invite you all come dinner. Teacher's house. Friday,'' he announced. He made a little bow.

Murmurs of approval went through the class. But teacher's house? All 15 of them were coming to my apartment?

``Oh, that's all right. We'll sit on the floor,'' said Maria from Italy.

Everyone looked so happy about the party that I couldn't bear to disappoint them.

After class the Chinese men came to my desk to confer about the menu.

``Sour-sweet pork,'' said Mr. Lee.

``And beef with noodle. And chick-ken cashew,'' said Mr. Wu.

``And fried rice too,'' added Mr. Chin. ``Tomorrow we go shopping.''

At home that night it suddenly hit me ... Sour-sweet pork? The Turkish girl and the Iranian were certainly Muslim, and probably observed dietary rules. Mr. Kaplan from Argentina had been absent on a Jewish holiday. They might find pork offensive.

I searched my class list in vain for a telephone for Mr. Chin in his ``apartment.'' Finally, at the dormitory I got hold of Mr. Lee. He assured me that pork would not be on the menu.

Then in the middle of the night, another thought ... beef. The two men from India might be Hindu. For them the cow was sacred. The next day after class I called Mr. Wu, Mr. Chin, and Mr. Lee aside. ``No beef,'' I told them.

They held a consultation. ``No problem,'' said a smiling Mr. Lee once more. ``We have chick-ken, fried rice, and - how you say?'' He consulted Mr. Wu.

``Shrimp,'' Mr. Wu supplied.

Walking home from campus that afternoon I had yet another thought. Shrimp. Didn't the Mosaic law proscribe shellfish too? I made another call to Mr. Lee.

``No problem. We don't buy meat till Friday. Must be flesh,'' he said. ``But only chick-ken?'' he sounded disappointed but resigned.

Chicken. Surely that would be safe for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians too.

``Tomorrow Friday. Party,'' the Chinese reminded the students the next day just before I dismissed the class. Friday! Maria, and Manuel from Mexico also, were probably Roman Catholics. Perhaps Friday was a fast day for them. I looked around the room for them, but they had gone.

That evening I got Maria on the telephone. ``Oh, that's all right,'' she said. ``We no eat meat at home on Friday, but I'll tell Father Murphy at St. John's, and call Manuel.''

Friday after class the three Chinese came to my desk again. ``We come 3 o'clock this afternoon, your apartment,'' Mr. Wu informed me.

``Three o'clock! I thought you said the dinner was at 6:30.''

``It take long time cook good dinner,'' he replied.

They were going to cook? Three men in my kitchen, where there was barely room for one! I tried to visualize it, but couldn't.

``But my kitchen is very, very small, and I don't have many pots and pans,'' I said.

``No problem. We bring everything,'' said the resourceful Mr. Lee.

At 3 o'clock the men arrived with chopping boards, cauldrons, bowls, chopsticks, and endless bags from Kroger's. ``Nice apartment. Plenty room,'' they said. Then began the onslaught on my kitchen. And such a chopping - on the refrigerator top, on the stove top, on a board across my desk. Then began the stirring. As one dish was done, the pan went on the floor. Pans were everywhere. The men just stepped over them.

At 6:30 the other 11 members of the class came tramping in. They hovered around my table-desk to heap paper plates with food, fill paper cups with orange pop and paper bowls with soup before crowding together on the floor to eat. They laughed as they tried to use their chopsticks.

``Fingers better,'' Manuel decreed. I got out my four forks. After dinner there was singing, the latest popular American songs, mostly. The foreign students knew more of them than I did.

At 11 o'clock the guests departed. ``Thanks. It was great,'' said everyone. The Chinese men stood by the door to bow out each guest. They stayed another hour or two. They washed pots and pans, scrubbed the stove, refrigerator, and table top, took out the trash, and mopped the floor. ``Party, you think it good?'' they asked.

``The party, I think very good,'' I said.

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