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Photo from The Wokery Chinese Restaurant in Rochester, New York

Chinese restaurants used to be a place where I went because I did well in school. When I brought home an outstanding report card at the age of ten, my mother told me, “I’m taking you to a Chinese restaurant tomorrow.” There was no reward system in place. I simply liked school and would continue to study hard whether I had Chinese food to look forward to or not.

I learned to use chopsticks that day, and even now, my coworkers from Southeast Asia notice how natural it seems for me to hold the bottom one like a pencil and move the top one.  Then the Wokery opened not far from my high school. This was a favorite spot to go with my grandmother and mother. Once in a while, I brought another studious friend with me.

Recently, I joked about keeping a Chinese takeout place in business because we were moving into our first home and everything was upside-down or in boxes. There was even a lawn mower in the living room!

Last month, I learned that even though I was now a homeowner in my hometown, I still could feel very much like an outsider. And what is to blame? In my field of study, Comparative Literature, I learned how to break down all kinds of cultural and linguistic barriers, but not everyone shares this ability. My suspicions were confirmed that gender also had something to do with the misunderstanding.

On a Friday night during happy hour, I went to a local bar that reminded me of European establishments with the zinc counter and the espresso machine alongside the bottles of wine and liquor. The previous week, an Italian gentleman my father’s age had sat with me at an umbrella table and explained how to make a good cup of espresso. He even said he was going to buy me “an espresso machine for the home.” Since I had company and could only stay a little while, time went by quickly.

Then on the evening when I had planned to stay the entire time, I was offered an espresso, and my Italian friend was nowhere to be found. A few Dominicans I hadn’t seen in a while were sitting at the next table, and I was hoping to catch up with them. Apparently, they had another agenda, which was to spend some “guy time” as it was later explained to me. The gender difference had not even crossed my mind, since I was fluent in Spanish and thought that my ability to converse in their native language trumped their longtime friendship with the owner of the establishment. 

As they sat and broke bread and I wanted to join them, I looked at my watch and thought of a white lie to save face: “Alessandro said I needed to be with my husband,” I told them, “and he’s working overtime. I should really be home by 6:30.” The bar owner laughed, saying, “I’ll tell him you’re following directions!”

I went to my usual takeout place to order enough Chinese food for six people. When I got home, I took a few bites and could not eat any more because of the bitter taste in my mouth. 

The next time, if I wanted to break bread with the Dominicans, I would bring the food. Or better yet, I would bring my husband with me.

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