Darnell Gardner, 27, fellow at a communications firm, and Jessie Li, 25, video producer. (Daniele Seiss/For The Washington Post)

Darnell Gardner headed to Date Lab soon after he moved from Atlanta to Washington earlier this year. The 27-year-old applied for a slot in our illustrious column because, he explained, he didn’t know anybody and he “figured this would be a good way to ... meet somebody new.” He’s actively — but not desperately — looking for a partner.

By contrast, Jessie Li, 25, told me a friend filled out her Date Lab application for her — though she did read it over before it was submitted. She avoids dating apps and at the moment is more focused on advancing her journalism career than she is on finding her other half.

They met downtown at Sichuan Pavilion, where they pounded waters and shared a beef noodle soup (though not out of the same bowl, so no “Lady and the Tramp”-style moments of noodle simultaneity), dumplings, bok choy with mushrooms, and a sweet-and-sour cabbage dish.

Darnell says it was “kind of eerie” that they had so many things in common. They both have backgrounds in writing and reporting, though Darnell has since switched from journalism to communications, while Jessie is now a video producer. Both are avid readers with an appreciation for the likes of James Baldwin and Bell Hooks. While this part of their conversation touched on race, they didn’t go too deep, per Darnell’s practice. “Usually on first dates when I’m out with somebody who’s not black, I try to gauge their views on things indirectly,” he said, explaining that subsequent meetups yield more in-depth conversations on the topic. “We seemed to be on the same page. Anybody who tells me they’ve read Bell Hooks and James Baldwin is probably okay.”

Jessie told me the best part of the night — the moment in which “we forgot that we were in this weird, awkward, constructed date and we were just talking to each other about things that we loved” — was when they discussed music. They talked about Drake and Kanye West, their love of shoegaze, how the band Real Estate has perfected the soundtrack for a summer drive with the windows down. So in sync were they on the topic of music that Darnell suggested they make a Spotify playlist. “I was like, yeah, sure that sounds fun!” Jessie said.

But there was one detail about Darnell that gave her pause. Upon hearing that he had spent time in China and is a fan of Chinese culture, Jessie, who is Chinese American, found herself thinking “more carefully about how I don’t want to be fetishized or seen as an object.”

Darnell told me that because he’s lived in China, he’s been asked before if he has a thing for Asian women. “The answer is no,” he said. “I don’t have any hang-ups about that.”

Though her antennae were up, Jessie told me she did not detect cultural creepiness in Darnell, describing him as “respectful and thoughtful” whenever he talked about race or about China.

(She did, however, question whether the Date Lab team chose Sichuan Pavilion “because I’m Chinese?” Date Lab photographer Daniele Seiss, who also handles date logistics, later explained to Jessie in an email that she did not mean to make her uncomfortable and that she chose the restaurant based on location and food preferences. Darnell had said he loves “authentic Chinese food,” Seiss wrote, while Jessie had said she only likes Asian and Italian. Jessie replied that she appreciated the note.)

As the date stretched to two hours, their conversation petered out. Darnell, who described Jessie as “pretty,” was fine with awkward silences, figuring they went with the overall awkwardness of dating. But Jessie felt the discursive impasse was telling. “If we’d had an immediate attraction and spark, we could have talked longer,” she said, allowing that she found him “cute.”

They hugged their goodbyes and about 20 minutes later, she told me, he texted her: “No pressure but if you want we should make the playlist together.” She replied, “Yeah, sounds good. Let’s chat about it later.”

Rate the date

Darnell: 4 [out of 5]. She just seemed like a very polite and conscientious person.

Jessie: 3.5 or 4. I enjoyed a lot of moments of conversation, but I felt like I was trying to keep [it] going.


The couple went out again. “I enjoyed her company (and her poetry),” Darnell said in an email. He reported that he asked for a third date, but that Jessie said she was busy and “not much else.”