The year is 1994. I’m twelve years old. I’m singularly focused, the way only sixth graders can be, on what I’m about to eat for lunch.
It’s fifty cents for a small. A dollar twenty-five for a large. A small means a 5”x5” styrofoam takeout box of spam fried rice with the standard vegetable medley of carrots, green beans, and peas — corn, if it’s your lucky day. A large means a bigger styrofoam takeout box of steamed white rice and the special of the week. It’s braised beef and daikon stew today, my favorite.
It’s a pretty efficient system. Cash only, of course. You tell the cashier how many smalls and how many larges you want. The cashier wordlessly circles the corresponding boxes on a small square of paper that’s about the size of a lotto ticket. You trade your ticket in for food right outside the kitchen where the styrofoam boxes are being prefilled and piled high. To the right of the kitchen is a folding table with four large, stainless steel, hot water urns of weak Lipton tea and small styrofoam, so much styrofoam, cups.
It’s gotta be the best lunch deal in town.
You won’t find this place on Yelp. I’m not talking about some hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop, foodie find, diamond in the rough. What I’m describing is a volunteer-run lunch cafeteria in one of Houston’s largest and oldest Chinese immigrant churches. It’s a second home for me, this place. After a long week of navigating and assimilating to white spaces, dealing with middle school social hierarchies, and managing prepubescent social anxiety, this church is a refuge where I only stand out when I want to.
Thanks to David Chang and Netflix, we understand the genius descriptor that is Ugly Delicious. This? This braised beef and daikon stew is more like Ugly Comforting. Is it good? I can’t tell, I’m too busy being comforted by it.
This particular Sunday I opt for two smalls. Carefully balancing my styrofoam boxes, I scan the room to find my Dad already sitting at our usual table. My Mom, an extreme extrovert, won’t make her appearance in the cafeteria until at least a half hour later after she’s given away all the plastic bags of vegetables she’s brought from her home garden.
I step up to an old, hulking Coke machine with a faded red plastic front that looks like someone colored it in with an old marker. It dispenses B-list sodas like 7Up, Sunkist, Mr. Pibb and A&W Root Beer, but the drinks are always reliably cold.
As I debate my soda choices, I adjust my right suspender so that it sits a bit higher on my shoulder. I love wearing these suspenders. This is my favorite church outfit. Suspenders and a pair of black slacks with thin silver pinstripes. I love this outfit because it feels like cheating the system. I’m going to get to dress like a man, but it’s sized for me. It’s honestly more Michael Jackson than Janelle Monae but it’s a comfortable uniform. And good riddance to pantyhose.
This outfit is the victory in a long war I’ve been waging with my Mom about church clothes. We’ve negotiated a tenuous compromise where I don’t have to wear a dress anymore, but I have to wear something that we both agree is “nice”. Nowhere in our battles does my Mom ever say anything about being more “ladylike”. Even if we both know that it’s what others think and say. Even if it’s what my Dad thinks. I am grateful for that small gift. I wonder if she’s also weary of being told what she can or can’t do as a woman. Given our immigrant Chinese/Taiwanese, Evangelical Christian in Houston in the mid nineties context, this concession from my Mom is mind-blowingly progressive. But I don’t see it as a concession. Filled with typical teenage hubris, I just chalk it up to my power of persuasion.
I don’t know what I expected to happen when I stopped wearing dresses to church. It was something I had wanted for so long. And when it finally happened, the zero reaction was shocking. But after awhile, I stop thinking about my church outfits altogether. The way I imagine boys and men are allowed to forget.
As I push the Sunkist button on the Coke machine, the cafeteria suddenly erupts into loud applause. It starts on the other side of the cafeteria and grows louder until it seems like everyone is clapping. I look up and see Yā Zi ā yí (duck auntie), a young woman in her early thirties, frozen just inside the entrance to the cafeteria. She’s wearing a simple yellow sundress and an uneasy expression on her face. My cheeks burn in embarrassment for her.
I don’t think anyone actually told me why they were clapping. There certainly wasn’t a debrief of any sort. Yā zi ā yí never wore dresses. She had really short hair. She always wore pants to church. This was something some of the elderly women did and now something that I had started doing, but all of the young women her age wore dresses. I don’t know why she chose to wear a dress that day. But whatever the reason, folks noticed, and they applauded it. They gave her an ovation. It didn’t feel as though people were mocking her. I think they were genuinely happy for her. They wanted to show their approval.
That’s what it can sometimes feel like to belong to a homogenous community. The thing that makes you belong is your sameness. Your belonging is shockingly contingent on your identity and behavior continuing to exist within unspoken lines. And when you trespass those lines, the community still cares for you but wishes better for you. Prays for you. Knows better for you. And if you finally do what they think is best for you, then, and only then, will they applaud you. They’ll give you a fucking ovation.
I have learned to not let a community, even a warm, well-intentioned community, decide what it means for me to be a woman. Have I found it difficult to assert myself as a woman because my childhood church limited what women could wear, say, and do? Yes. Even to this day. But you know what? It was the desire for approval that I had to work the hardest to let go of.
I kind of hate that my formative memories about gender are related to dress codes. But I’m also thankful. Because I think sometimes you learn about the breadth of something because someone else created an impossibly tiny box for it. And in the process of stepping outside of that one tiny box, you find yourself on a journey to discover the whole world that exists outside of all of the other impossibly tiny boxes people have made.