Closing Gender and Racial Gaps in the UAE & The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF)

What’s changed in almost a quarter of a century? Leafing through the pages of Emirates Woman’s November 1995 issue, I’d say—aside from the suggestion that a mobile phone is “something only a woman like Stephanie Forrester on The Bold and The Beautiful would be using”—nothing much. Bouclé, the fabric of that season, is still in style. Slingback shoes are again the rage. Even Nokia’s iconic “banana phone” has recently been brought back to life. And it’s not just fashion. The same social issues of 1995 persist today worldwide. In that November issue, I was quoted as saying, “Sometimes, as a young woman manager, I feel I need to prove myself double. People’s mentality can be such that they give you a hard time because you don’t look how they perceive you should.”

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“Sometimes, as a young woman manager, I feel I need to prove myself double. People’s mentality can be such that they give you a hard time because you don’t look how they perceive you should.”

I was twenty-five then. My job was to open and run a restaurant in Dubai for one of the world’s most renowned hotel brands. While the hotel and restaurant industry teemed with Filipino personnel, a young, single, female Filipino securing a management-level role—primarily dominated by Caucasians or men—was a rarity. It was a big step in the right direction by top management. But were the staff, guests, and general public ready for it?

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Among colleagues, I was looked down upon—literally. Let me explain. In the Philippines, especially in our family, I was considered tallish. But as you know, stature is relative to the person standing next to you. So, next to my five-foot-tall sister, I was statuesque. But alongside most of my colleagues, especially the six-foot-two Irish pub manager—who’d sometimes check in with me by asking, “How’s the weather down there?”—I was a midget. Soon, I was endearingly monikered “Shorty.”

Aside from being “short,” I was also slim. No, skinny. Actually, scrawny to a point that a heavily built guest in a white thobe once asked with a chuckle if there was shortage of food where I came from. Mind you, being short and scrawny had its advantages. It knocks years off your age, which is flattering under all circumstances except in mine. I knew it worked against my favor when a seemingly caring guest (she might as well have been a human rights lawyer) pulled me aside to ask if it was legal for me to work. According to her I looked underaged.

When it came to breaking stereotypes, I realized that people were more willing to accept an outrageous lie than a plain truth in order to support a status-quo mindset. For example, to justify why I was hired as a manager with pay equal to my Caucasian or male counterparts (long before equal pay legislation was endorsed), my co-workers preferred to believe the false rumor that I was sleeping with the boss than accept that I was the best candidate for the job.

It also didn’t help that my assistant was a blond and blue-eyed German woman. Though she and I worked very well together, when she was around, no one believed I was the manager. The words “Restaurant Manager” imprinted on my nameplate did nothing to mitigate their prejudices based on the color of my skin. I sustained countless incidents to prove this, but there was one that hurt the most. During lunch service, I welcomed an arriving guest with an outstretched arm and a smile from ear to ear. The guest, too, beamed a smile. To my surprise, she bypassed me and shook the hand of my assistant, who was standing behind me. It probably wouldn’t have been seared into my memory if that guest hadn’t been a kababayan—a fellow Filipino.

About two years later, I was promoted to coordinator, a position that was in charge of several of the hotel’s restaurants, passing over more senior restaurant managers. At the end of 1998, I left the UAE for good. Twenty-four years on, I’ve moved to five different countries. A few months ago, I published a book in the United States called The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and recipes from around the Globe. I mention the book because, in it, I share the heartaches and joys of working in the Emirates as an expat restaurant manager who grappled with singlehood in a society riddled with gender and racial gaps and who worked at a restaurant touting a signature dish for two. The story is told through the lens of a Filipino dish called sinigang, a sour and savory soup. As interest in Filipino food is growing rapidly, I thought it was important to share not only recipes but also the stories behind the people who make them. Joining me in the book are twenty-nine Filipino expat chefs, home cooks, and writers including the U.S. White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, the first female and first person of Asian descent to hold the position.

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Because of the book, I will be returning to the UAE this April. Thanks to the Sharjah Book Authority who invited me to attend the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF) 2019, I will have the opportunity to revisit the country I left in 1998. On April 24 through 26, Dubai-based contributing author Chef Pâtissier Nouel Omamalin and I will demonstrate how simple and easy it is to cook Filipino dishes that everyone in the family will enjoy. I take the invitation as a sign of changing times. We’re among the first Filipino cookbook authors to join the festival’s cookery corner in its eleven-year history.

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Jacqueline Chio-Lauri photo (left) © Line Viste; Nouel Omamalin (middle)

Segueing back to gender and racial parity in the industry, a 2018 Travel Weekly article echoed my 1995 observations. Hospitality industry consultant Laila Rach said, “It’s a very white, male industry. Is it changing? Yes. But it is changing glacially. The sea of change is far too slow.”

It’s been over two decades since I reviewed a restaurant in Dubai. The service was neglectful and dismissive, to say the least. When I reported the experience to my boss, he replied, “What did you expect? You’re a Filipina.” I will keep it in mind during my upcoming visit to the Emirates. If someone asks me what has changed since I left, I hope I can no longer say “nothing much really.”

Catch Nouel and me at the cookery corner,  Sharjah Expo Center:

24th of April 2019 6:00 – 6:45 Pancit with Shrimp and Adobo
25th of April 2019 7:00 – 7:45 Nutella Bola de Sylvana
26th of April 2019 7:00 – 7:45 Chicken adobo in pandesal

by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri

Anthologist, Author, and Editor

THE NEW FILIPINO KITCHEN: Stories and Recipes from around the Globe

A Sunshot Prose Prize 2017 Finalist Winner and a favorite cookbook of 2018 by the San Francisco Chronicle

*This piece was ready to go and slated to be published in Emirates Woman Magazine, April 2019 issue. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it ran, instead, online and was removed hours after it was posted.

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