When you’re one of the only Americans in a dorm full of foreigners, you become the foreign one. I left Hawaii for six months, but I never forgot how different it is from the mainland.
The student dormitory I now reside in is not affiliated with any one college, but rather is run by a Buddhist temple for students of any college on the island. As such, the dorm has a definite Asian culture to it, although it is not exclusive, and according to a friend of mine the percentage of Japanese students now is far lower than when he resided here. At the New Years BBQ I met some of my dorm mates, hailing from India, Vietnam, Germany, Singapore, Thailand, Burma. I told them I was from Ohio, and there was a collective “Oooh”. One girl giggled and said she could never remember American names, they all sound the same to her.
The dorm has a single communal kitchen. Everyone jostles at the single stove, bumping elbows, knives flashing in strange synchrony at the counter. I set out to make Cheater Shepherd’s Pie, one of my favorite recipes, and everyone crowds around in wonder. “What are you making?” It is reminiscent of my first apartment, when I lived with the Chinese couple, how they were always marveling over the most simple meals that I would make, meals that were so foreign to them. “You teach me to cook,” Chinese Dad would always joke as, somewhat bewildered, I’d toss anything at hand into a frying pan. I love to cook, but I’m no master. I just work with what I have.
Cheater Shepherd’s Pie is a cheap and easy meal, perfect for poor and starving college students. Just brown some ground beef with garlic, mix with a can of alphabet soup, spread in a baking dish then top with mashed potatoes and shredded cheddar, baking for about ten minutes, just long enough to melt the cheese. It was an instant hit in my dorm, and is now oft requested.
I am the only person in the dorm who doesn’t own a rice cooker. I don’t particularly care for rice; possibly I’ve just been burnt out on it. Growing up in Ohio, rice was one of those things we always ate when money was tight. Here, I garner strange looks for turning down rice. Another frugal food was ramen, the stereotypical staple of starving college students; and yet here in Hawaii ramen comes in gourmet versions for $10 a bowl.
Often dinner becomes a mixed affair, everybody combining and sharing their own individual dishes. In a single meal we dine on hot shrimp and cabbage and curry and mashed potatoes. Conversation is a blending chatter of Asian dialectics; feeling left out, I start speaking in Pig Latin.
My dorm mates teach me phrases in Korean and Japanese. I teach them how to play “Punch Buggy” and the correct usage of “That’s what she said.” I’ve gotten used to watching television with subtitles.
When we go out as a group and meet new people, everyone always asks where we’re all from. My dorm mates name off countries and I reply humbly. My birthplace is nothing special in comparison; and yet the reaction is always the same: “Oooh, Ohio.” I am exotic.