The other day, while waiting on the platform for the PATH train, a young Chinese woman approached me and asked for directions. I helped out and as we were both going in the same direction, I told her I’d let her know which stop was the one she wanted. We got on the train and she sat next to me and we began to chat.
She explained that she was going to a training class and only ever travels the PATH once a year, so she wasn’t exactly sure where to go. She asked me what I do for a living and where I live – commenting on how long my commute is. She then asked if I have any children. I told her that I have two daughters – one in grade school and the other in middle school. She asked me how I manage working with two daughters – to which I responded, “Well, my wife is at home to get them off too school and such.”
She stared at me – saying nothing – for what must have been a good ten seconds. She had an odd look on her face – a look I’ve seen many times before – the look of someone lost and trying to get their bearings. She eventually responded, “Oh, ok.” and fumbled for a few seconds before continuing our conversation.
Up to the point where I mentioned my wife, she gendered me as a woman – which is perhaps why she felt at ease chatting up a stranger. However, upon the mention of my wife, the discussion came to an abrupt stop as she now started reframing the last ten minutes we spent interacting. Once done, she seemed fine, but for those ten seconds or so – I became unintelligible to her.
I rarely feel bad when people fumble over what they think my gender is or should be. Part of ‘me being me’ is to challenge the assumptions and show that there is more than just ‘men and women’ out there. But this was different. I felt bad because she was caught completely off guard and interupted what was otherwise a rather nice chat we were having. To her credit, she seemed to recover quite well.