The other night I was invited out with my husband to be for dinner with some work colleagues. There was some begging involved, we had other plans which may or may not involved a carton of ice cream, a movie on a rainy night but finally feeling like I should be a good new colleague and not the weird I am just here to survive till they let me do what I really want to do which is move to Kenya person I am usually am…I SAID YES.
It was at a new trendy wine and tapas place downtown…we like wine and tapas…what could go wrong?
As we follow the gmap directions, we end up in the neighborhood where my clinic is. This is one of those neighborhoods that you don’t want to walk in alone at night so the city is revitalizing it by putting in trendy tapas bars, boutiques for your pets and art galleries. Meanwhile, the neighborhood does not have a grocery store and most of my patients have take a bus or walk two miles to the nearest Kroger. We parked and exchanged the look of us both trying not to be those snobby people who can’t enjoy a meal because we feel like our friends two blocks over can’t…
We showed up in jeans and reasonably casual but clean shirts. Everyone else was in short skirts and button downs. We were self-conscious but tried to shrug it off, we are casual and chic…right?
Then we look at the menu. My colleagues talk about wine, they give us the choice (likely because we were being quiet trying to rub the dirt from our jeans and flip flops) between the 30 dollar bottle and the 110 dollar bottle. I am pretty sure, we actually almost fell over…100 dollars for a half a glass of wine each… WE went with the 30 dollar bottle.
We then proceed to talk about what doctors’ talk about. WORK. We relived our interviews and job hunting tales from last Fall. They manage to corner me into truthfully listing my options from last year which ranged from Harvard to Haiti. They push away my feeble attempts of humility with awestruck respect. I sit there in my target jeans and orthopedic flip flops (which are pricey but are the only way I can walk and are not um trendy looking) and wish we could talk about something else. SO then we talk about how happy they are to be out with us for once and they want to talk about the wedding and us. This leads to us saying YES seriously, we really aren’t going to live together till we get married. The other couples (all co-habitating) at the table look at us like we might be from another universe. Although I notice the girls all admiring my ring and terrifying, real commitment with envy…
Then we order food. 5 tapas entrees for the 6 of us. We paid 7 dollars a piece for a bite size bit of ahai tuna and 6 dollars for a single cheery tomato with bacon and goat cheese. The food is good but in shockingly small amounts, we finish our 1/3 of a glass of 30 dollar wine. My fiance the only non-doctor at the table is now giving me looks that range from discomfort to empathy to bewilderment. They all just got back from a big conference, I presented at it the previous year. They rave about the food and drink and when they realize I chose to go to Central America rather than go to the conference, look at me again like an endangered species.
I needed some air at this point and excused myself to the rest room. As I walked back through the bar, I caught a glimpse of the rainy park beyond the window. And realized everyone for as far as I could see in the large bar was white (or Asian). And everyone in the park beyond was not.
I felt old all of sudden. Because on paper, this is who I am supposed to be. I am supposed to be the young physician with the perfect academic pedigree who impresses her colleagues, who presents at prestigious conferences and goes out to trendy wine bars with her cute, ever supportive (moving to Africa for her research interests is how he is described at work) husband to be and who constantly flashes her diamond finger so it catches the light and everyone can notice. And the girls even if they think I am a little strange with my chastity envy my man’s commitment to me and the chance to plan a wedding. I have everything that all my colleagues want, I am the girl people want to be.
But in a strange blend of irony and satire, I’m not that girl. I’m the girl who is happier in a stained pair of dress pants I have had since high school holding a new baby born to a teen Mom down the street or in a ragged linen skirt rounding in an open air ward in Kenya. The husband to be and I’s idea of a night out is either ethnic food or our favorite two dollar carton of local Ohio ice cream that lasts us for two weeks. I have no desire for the 6 figure starting salary I can have any time I want and YEP I turned down Harvard last Dec TWICE. The reason I haven’t been to any previous outings this Fall with my work peers is because I had church activities. And yes we are those people who go to bible study every Thursday night and church on Sunday and yes because everyone wants to know, we aren’t having sex till after we get married. And NO we aren’t moving to Africa so I can do research for academic glory! No he is not the supportive feminist ideal of a husband coming along to support my career goals, we feel called to fight for justice for disabled people together. I blush in horror at my snobbery…and as I find myself back at the table, looking at my husband to be’s bewildered face, I realize we are in culture shock.
I fell off the boat, the doctor boat. I am in a sea adrift with the people who will never be on the boat. And as a result I will never be back on the boat either. There is no going back. I may have the academic pedigree of that girl but it is only so I can I keep swimming. My cross cultural experience is not next year, its this one.
I no longer know how to relate to my peers. We no longer speak the same language and we no longer have the same cultural ideals. I love them and I admire them as physicians. Its not them, its me.
They opened the wine menu and started talking about how much they wanted a 75 dollar bottle of wine, we gave each other looks of we can’t spend that kind of money….we made our excuses and fled into the rainy night.
In the car we breathe a huge sigh of relief. And I grieve for a bit. For the cultural gulf that stands between me and them. I grieve at how snobby I feel. We get home, the husband to be goes in search of two dollar ice cream and I glaze at my photographs over my mantle of my friends around the world and I realize that I wouldn’t trade feeling comfortable with a 100 dollar bottle of wine every night for the rest of my life for a few hours of holding babies, dancing on dirt floors or drinking coffee with the homeless man down the street from the wine bar.
I will swim on into the crazy whirlpool of choosing poverty over prestige, love over comfort and for many more African church services with dancing that might go on for five hours over another few conferences with10 dollar sandwiches and research advancement.
I swim on not because I am holy or better (because I am broken and the same). But because I think the transformation is complete. I am more mermaid now than sailor.