Salty steam rises above a pot of miso soup loaded with sharp spring onions and silky-soft tofu. It is carefully tended by a master’s student in public policy from Japan. He greets me with a grin stretching from one ear to the other and a warm greeting. He is easily one of the friendliest patrons of the community kitchen.
At the stove next to him, a group of Egyptian women prepare lentils, rice, tomato sauce, and fried onions. They mix the contents of each pot into a full Arab-family-sized serving of koshari. They are in their third year of undergrad, and most of them study economics. It is nearly impossible to find any of them sitting individually in the dining room. They are always together, giggling and sharing stories, commiserating about the cold and the unreasonable workload at this university where fun comes to die.
And next to them, a woman from Pakistan flips roti over an open flame, browning both sides of paper-thin bread until golden. She is also a master’s student in public policy, but I am delighted to learn through further conversation with her that she has a passion for makeup.
My next-door-neighbor is also in the kitchen, an American woman from Arizona studying anthropology. She is still clad in spandex leggings and a muscle tank, fresh from a long run. She lays out plates of vegan cheese and refried beans to roll into tortillas from the supermarket.
There are others in this kitchen from countries I wouldn’t anticipate: Iran, Cyprus, Lebanon. A handful of people from Italy and Spain, another handful from France. They are historians, physicists, linguists. And then there are the women from China who study social work with me, as part of their country’s initiative to develop the emerging profession domestically.
When I wake up early in the morning before class or my field internship, floating down to the kitchen to satisfy my zombie hunger, the janitor is just starting his shift. He will set down his mop for a few minutes to tell me stories about his ranch in Mexico, or the quinceañera they just threw in Pilsen for a beloved niece. Chatting in Spanish makes me feel that I am among family. I always look forward to seeing him, even though I am often only half-awake for these conversations.
I pick up my mail from the receptionist at the front desk, an African-American woman whose family has been in Chicago for generations. We have both been at this university for too long. We bond because it is uncommon for her to meet International House residents who have spent more than a year or two on campus. On this morning, she tells me about her wedding plans, scrolling through dresses on her smartphone, waving the images in front of me, asking my opinion. I tell her she’ll look beautiful in whichever one she chooses, and it’s the truth.
Living in this dormitory, it can be tiring to greet at least ten people before I make it out the door, or back to my room on the ninth floor after a long day. But what a strange gift, to have lived in this kinder microcosm of the world for a year.
International House friends, I would love to hear about your favorite memories from our shared living space. Maybe other readers have thoughts about community living, too. Let me know in the comments below.