International Girls Night Out at the Chinese Kitchen

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by Sayaka Matsuoka

The get-together at the Chinese Kitchen earlier this month wasn’t your ordinary girls night.

The International Girls Night Out group was meeting for the 64th time after being started six years ago by two local women, Marion Hofmann and Karen Narita.

“The sole purpose is to have fun,” Hofmann said. “It’s a really nice way to meet other people.”

The two Greensboro natives started the monthly group in February 2009 as a way for women from international backgrounds to come together for a night of drinks, food and conversation.

“Our goal is to meet every month except for November and December because of holidays,” she added.

While they started in Greensboro with only 11 people their first meeting, the group grew by word of mouth and now boasts an average of 40 to 50 women from all over the world. June’s meeting broke a new record, with 54 attendees. And the July affair was no exception; at least 40 women showed up to the Asian fusion restaurant near Quaker Village. The restaurant was formerly housed in a smaller location in the popular shopping center by Guilford College, but the new, modern space has been the establishment’s home for the past year after considerable construction for a new tenant moving in nearby, owner Ying Chiu said.

“We had to move because of Wal-Mart,” Chiu said. “We got kicked out.”

The established Chinese Kitchen may wear a new face, but it offers the same great food as it has for the past 10 years.

Both newcomers and returnees were in attendance; Pooja Cooper was one of the latter.

“People think Greensboro is a small city but there’s such a wide variety of women here,” said Cooper, who has been showing up for the past two years. “We’re all in the same boat; we miss our homes and this way we get to connect with others who are going through the same thing.”

In part because of my Japanese heritage, group co-founder Karen Narita contacted me a few weeks ago after seeing my name in our neighborhood listserv. After recently discovering one of my favorite Chinese restaurants from my childhood was still open, I suggested the 64th meeting be hosted at Chinese Kitchen.

The night brought together women of different generations and from all over the world including France, Germany, Korea, Peru, Austria, Canada, Vietnam, Belarus, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

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The group filled the large, open restaurant and once everyone was seated, conversation flowed naturally. Women snickered as gossip traveled across the room, while others filled their friends in on lives revolving around husbands and children. At my table, which came to be labeled the “Asian invasion,” the talk was about where we came from. Narita, whose name is also a major city in Japan, revealed her childhood growing up in Brazil after her grandparents moved there from the island nation. Ci Barros, Karen’s mother-in-law who is also Brazilian, sat next to her. Barros moved to the United States in 1999 but lived in different countries before settling in North Carolina years ago. Next to me sat Truc Nguyen, a young Vietnamese woman, whose name was actually pronounced “Joop,” as was written on her nametag by her co-worker who invited her, Margarita Pasakarnis from Belarus. Nguyen moved to the States at the age of 5 when her parents moved here as refugees after the war. Pasakarnis came to the United States for her husband at the time.

While we waited for the main fare, we munched on complimentary fried noodles, dipping them in sweet and sour sauce. Soon, appetizers, entrees and vibrant sushi dishes were rolling out of the kitchen and onto our tables.

I ordered an old favorite — sesame chicken with broccoli — and some of the other women picked similar chicken dishes, Mongolian beef, seared scallops and lettuce wraps. Pasakarnis, who insisted on trying something new, had a plate of thin, yellowed, curry noodles placed in front of her.

“I don’t usually like curry, but this is delicious,” she said about the Singaporean noodles. “Here, have some.”

As we enjoyed our entrees, we continued to get to know each other. YoungDoo Carey, a Korean woman, and I bonded over our love of food and began a conversation with Narita about different Japanese and Korean dishes. Carey recommended adding Tahini sauce to ramen to give it extra flavor and then started exalting shiso leaves and plum wine.

While many of the women, including myself, met each other for the first time that night, the common factor of being displaced from our home countries made bonding all the more natural; and by the end of the night, many felt they had found a new home away from home.

For more information on the monthly International Girls Night Out, join the group on Facebook or contact Karen Narita or Marion Hofmann on the social networking site.