An exotic banquet - of macaroni and cheese

As a teacher of English working overseas, I find wealth is not measured by how much money I have, but by how great my stash of American food items is. That favorite soup mix or chocolate bar from home can make all the difference between surviving a bad day in another country or succumbing to one. So it's not surprising that when the two United States Peace Corps volunteers left my college in Luzhou, China, I was shamefully elated. Their speedy departure due to the SARS scare left me with a stunning stockpile of their hoarded US goodies.

I had had no idea they possessed such a treasure trove: macaroni and cheese boxes, dessert mixes, Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and more. Their greed was appalling, but mine was even worse as I surveyed their abandoned grocery store and plotted how best to make use of it. I certainly had no intention of sharing with the Chinese. These American delicacies were all mine.

But the current situation in China soon softened my gluttony. With the college campus locked down tight due to SARS, students were not allowed to venture outside the school gates. No more noodle stands, shopping ventures, Internet cafes, or visits home. All were stuck on school grounds, making life gloomy and depressing.

"Will you leave us, too?" my class of 11 English majors asked me not long after the Peace Corps teachers had gone. Their anxious faces peered up at mine. My heart melted, and before I knew it, I had invited them over to my apartment for a unique experience: an American food-mix dinner.

The date was set for Friday. All week, the students and I anticipated the tastes to come: the comforting and familiar for me, the different and unusual for them. We agreed that everyone would help in the preparation, so an early arrival was planned. I set up food stations in my small apartment, spread out the mixes for our dinner, and awaited the coming of the cooks.

The students stormed my apartment with great excitement. Each food package was snatched up and curiously inspected. Heated discussions on who would make what followed. Eventually, groups formed and we were ready to begin.

It took quite a bit of maneuvering to get everything done. With only a two-burner gas range and a tiny toaster oven to work with, our hodgepodge of American quick-foods took longer than expected.

By the time the last item was placed on the table, we were starving and eager to dig in.

Aside from the chopsticks, you would never have known we were in China. Our long table was set with pretty floral plates and napkins. Serving bowls were heaped high with macaroni and cheese, spicy Cajun jambalaya, garlic-and-herb couscous, noodles in cream sauce, and scalloped potatoes. Frosted brownies, blueberry muffins, and chocolate pudding awaited nearby. It was a spectacular spread, compliments of my magnanimous spirit.

We took our seats. Main dishes were passed. Plates were filled. Chopsticks were poised. I welcomed all to the table, then signaled our start by taking the first bite. So engrossed was I by the magnificence of my food that it wasn't until I was on second helpings that I finally noticed my guests.

They had been transformed.

My students had become an elite team of scientists, with each plate their own private petri dish of foreign matter to be analyzed, scrutinized, examined, and dissected. Pieces of macaroni were pried from their brethren, peered at and sniffed before being discarded. Grains of couscous were held aloft on chopsticks then squashed between fingertips in an attempt to discern exactly what they were. Noodles were dangled in hopes of discovering what deformity had taken place. The Cajun jambalaya was shunned as if possessed by voodoo spirits, and the scalloped potatoes were barely touched.

I tried to salvage my reputation as a good hostess by quickly passing the desserts, but these, too, ended in destruction. Frosting was scraped from the brownies, blueberries were picked from the muffins, and the pudding was stirred about until it was almost liquefied.

When cleanup time came, I rescued the untouched food and mournfully watched the rest go into the trash. The students kindly thanked me for the special evening and left just as hungry as when they came.

I would have always regretted that dinner had it not been for my class leader's English-language journal entry. The following week, she wrote: "Happiness is eating American foods with our foreign teacher, Connie. Although the taste is very new and different for us, we are happy because we are all together. We really, really want to say thank you."

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