"It's your honor," said Rob, his voice raised above the restaurant chatter. "Tell the waitress what you're gonna have."
"I'll have Rump steak, well done, with baked potato."
"And for a drink?" asked the waitress.
"l'l' try a Bud," I said. "I hear it's great."
The rest of the group gave their orders and the chattering resumed. I had arrived in New York City in the fall of 1967 to attend graduate school. Being the only non white and foreign student in the class, my American classmates saw me as a spectacle. They were curious and had many questions running in their minds. But they were friendly, too. So, during the last class of the first day, Rob, whom I met briefly during lunch break, wrote a note which he relayed to me by way of two students who formed a human conveyor belt:
"Would you like to join us for a bite and chat after class?" the note read in part.
"I would love to," I wrote back.
After class Rob showed up with five other class mates; three boys and two girls. Soon we were seated in a small restaurant along 14th Street off 5th Avenue. Sitting at the head of a small table, I fielded numerous questions from my class mates:
"How do you like our city?" asked Joanna.
"Do you have restaurants in Africa?" That was Mel.
"Do hyenas visit your villages?" asked Rich. "I heard hyenas love picking bones in the villages at night."
I did my best to answer these and other questions. I felt I was my country's Ambassador and had a duty to inform my class mates but not to play the PR. I was so engrossed in answering their questions that I didn't have the opportunity to ask them my questions about this strange "urban jangle" called New York City.
I came from a small rural village in Zambia in the heart of Africa. Coming to New York City was like traveling from another planet! The experience was overwhelming.
"Oh, you'll get used to it," assured Rob.
"How's your meal?" asked the waitress, addressing no one in particular.
"Pretty good," said Rob, and the others nodded.
Everybody fidgeted; their hands dug deep into their pockets fishing for cash (credit cards were then still a novelty among students).
I frantically emptied my trouser pockets. Not enough change. I perspired.
"You need a loan?" said Rob after noticing my dog face. "I'll take care of your bill and you'll owe me."
"Thanks Rob", I said putting on a brave face. "ll square you tomorrow."
Wasn't I invited? Then it hit me, this must be the American meaning of invitation. Back in my country which had just gained its independence from the Brits, I learnt that when invited, the bill is on the host, not the guest.
In my rural village, all meals were taken communally; all men of the village and boys five years and older, ate together; women, girls and younger boys ate together. There was no payment.
I learnt that in America and, among students, one was invited for company; not to be feted.