Sunshine seating at the New Tandoori Cafe, San Jose, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.
I had dinner tonight with two women I met a couple of months ago at a work-related event. They somehow took a liking to me, and expressed interest in meeting up sometime. Sure, I said, thinking, New friends! After some back and forth, we finally managed to coordinate schedules. By the time this evening finally came around, I was tired and wanted nothing more than to just head straight home after work, but I take dinner plans too seriously to back out on a whim. Plus, I reminded myself, New friends! So, I went.
We met up at the New Tandoori Cafe in San Jose, and marveled at all the menu options while I explained the details of Desi food: aloo naan, chicken pesto naan, garlic naan; tandoori salmon; chicken tikka masala and chicken tikka boti; pakoras and samosas and all the usual Desi(-American) fare. Food ordered, we sat back and made small talk and questioned one another about our lives. Born and raised in Germany, one of them had moved to the United States when she was 26. The other was Japanese, and had immigrated to the U.S. in her early twenties. “So, were you born here, or in Pakistan?” asked the German woman.
“Here,” I said. “In Berkeley.”
“Oh. So you don’t know what it’s like to be different, then.”
I felt a flash of annoyance. “Actually, I know exactly what that’s like.” I elaborated a bit, then added, “I didn’t become comfortable with who I was until during college” – the end of college, I didn’t add. I studied the brightly painted, stuccoed map of South Asia on the Tandoor Cafe walls. In large black letters, the multicolored countries are labeled Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. I think there may be countries missing from the map.
We talked about our families, faith, life in the Bay Area, travel and education, the work we do. They wanted to hear about the Chicago conference from which I just returned, so I filled them in. Dinner arrived, and we dug in. Midway through the meal, one of the women said, “So, we wanted to invite you to our event…” and pulled out an invitation letter and a flyer. Something inside of me deflated a little. I should have guessed. This wasn’t a friendly, let’s hang out and become friends meal. It was all about work – projects and programs and events and meetings and networking. And there is absolutely nothing negative about the work that each of us does, as far as I’m concerned. But I should have known our little dinner was going to be about this, too.
In a word, it was disappointing. Over the past 16 months, I have grown accustomed to seeing the boundary lines between my personal and professional life become blurred and less defined. There is some satisfaction in this – knowing that I’m meeting like-minded individuals, all of us fighting the good fight; knowing that I’m doing something constructive with my life. But it also means that my personal has become my professional. It means that when I talk about the work I do, I have to bring in the full history of who I am and what I stand for; it means that when I make new friends, we automatically begin brainstorming ways for our respective organizations to work together; it means I vent about work to my family and close friends nearly everyday, yet can’t bring myself to walk away because I know that what I do is important.
Can I just, for God’s sake, attend a meeting or program and not get pulled into telling “my story”? How did my story become inextricably caught up with who I am professionally? I thrive on hearing other people’s stories, but I’m tired of having to talk about myself, and explain myself, and put myself out there every single day, including all the evenings and weekends that get tied up with work-related projects. It’s exhausting.
But I took the pretty invitation and flyer, assured them that I would check my calendar and do my best to be there, asked some questions about the program and expressed how honored I felt to be invited. Which I did. But still, it was disappointing to feel that they had perhaps invited me to dinner not necessarily because of wanting to know me on a personal level, but because they were interested in who I stood for professionally. Which is close to who I am personally. See, I confuse myself. And it brings up a good question: Do I want my life separated into tidy compartments, with no fear of cross-contamination? Isn’t it better this way, where everything is fluid, and flows together? Honestly, I don’t know.
At the end, as we said our goodbyes, one of the women exclaimed, “You give the best hugs!”
“So I’ve been told,” I laughed, then added in my best scary voice, “Bone-crushing!“