Outside, the black awning read “Han 202: Chinese and Seafood” in neat white letters. Inside, we were led to our seats by a tall and thin Asian woman dressed sharply in black, who moved among white chairs and pale brown tables, each set with a lotus flower-shaped candle.
There was a decidedly Zen calmness to the atmosphere, but it was softened by a nonchalance that shunned tablecloths and blunted what would’ve been stark white tables. The restaurant’s small size gave it a modern casual coziness, facilitated by a cafeteria-style table in the front and the bars of white fluorescent light above, just bright enough to render the weak flame of the lotus flower candles pointless. Seeming to realize its own irrelevance, our candle’s flame faltered, then went out about halfway through dinner.
Three tables for four were in the back, in a line against the wall and with a good view of the kitchen. My parents, brother, and I were seated at the second of these tables; the first was already occupied by two middle-aged Caucasian couples. Shortly after we were seated, another pair of middle-aged Caucasian couples flanked our table.
My brother, sitting opposite me, leaned over the table.
“The people behind us are so loud,” he whispered.
About 10 minutes later, my dad, sitting across the diagonal, said something.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s too loud.”
Whatever calm atmosphere had been established upon our entering the restaurant had been ripped to shreds by the table behind us, and a menu laden with selections of quail, lamb, and lobster led me to forget that I was in a Chinese restaurant. The only lady I could see from my angle seemed to be the loudest of the bunch, often leaning diagonally over the table to shout, her mouth opening so wide that her smile at the corners sometimes disappeared into its distension. The table on our other side was not as loud as the first, but the competition necessitated a certain elevation of volume.
Sitting in between the two conversations, we found it hopeless to talk to each other. The jovial atmosphere was so dense with words and voices that we could find no space within it. My family has never been a loud one; I’ve sat at many an almost silent dinner table with them. But they become even quieter when, having something to say, they find themselves surrounded by those who speak more and more loudly. They, like any family, enjoy speaking to each other, even if in quieter tones.
But now we sit, our silence no longer chosen but enforced, waiting outside the whirlwind for an opening which will never come.
I feel anxious as the waiters fill the glasses and set down the dishes of an absolutely silent table. Do we appear too serious, too stilted, too repressed? Do we look like we are not enjoying ourselves? Is there a tension that lingers in the air from a lack of words to tear it apart? Will my concerned peers appear, reminding me that socialization is important and telling me that I need to “get out more” or be more “out there”? (Out where? Where is this outside they keep referring to?) They seem unaware that I only become silent when I feel socially uncomfortable and that their judgment only drives me deeper into my silence.
Surrounded by those talking too loudly for us to speak, I sit there, worrying that our silence makes our status as outsiders even more apparent.
Eleanor Hyun is a second-year in the College majoring in English.