Finding people who share your convictions and philosophies is harder when you are someone living two lives. This is essentially what happens when you leave your home town where people are poor and believe in certain ideals to enter the more affluent environment that tends to be a private university or graduate school where ideals are different.
To speak to this, I’ll share a couple of my experiences. I have been in a one on-and-off-and-on-again relationship and two serious relationships. I’ll speak of the serious ones first.
The first relationship lasted 2 years and 5 months. He was half Asian and half Eastern European and 8 years older than me. He grew up in a suburb of Chicago and went to a private, catholic high school where tuition approached $17,000 and the endowment is $34 million.
The second relationship lasted 1 year and 11 months. She was of North Eastern African decent, middle Eastern really, and Muslim. Her parents immigrated before she was born in order to complete their PhDs. They later moved to the Midwest and became professors at the same college. In the small city in which they lived, all three of their children were at the top of their classes, scored in the 99th percentile on all sections of the ACTs and went to college for free at the college their parents taught. The family frequently played Rummikub after dinner at the dining room table.
Both partners made me feel as though they understood me at first. They were both socially conscious individuals with a lot of passion for helping the disadvantaged. Both were teachers at low income schools and were fully committed to these positions, earning tenure within three years and becoming one of the most well respected teachers among their staff and students.
It was with time that I learned that they never truly understood. They could only read about hardships they had never faced or listen to me share an experience they couldn’t exactly identify with, though try they did.
I immigrated when I was 3 months short of 7 years of age. My house in the DR had tin roofs and when I got to America, I thought I’d be living the life, with a room of my own and all the toys I could want. My 2 sisters and I shared a futon in the living room of a one bedroom apartment in the Bronx. My mother barely had a high school education and my father was already a senior citizen at this point, so we lived off of food stamps and government subsidies for the rest of my childhood. We then moved to Harlem, because we finally were able to get an apartment in the NYC Housing Authority–yes we sought after this. The new apartment had three bedrooms but my father was no longer in the picture and the building reeked of urine, drug sales went down in the staircases, and the mice and roaches ran rampant. We commuted an hour each way to get to the school closest to my mother’s job so that if anything ever went down, my mom could make it to school. We watched tv during dinner, after I or one of my sisters cooked it, whoever got home first, because mother was too tired after 12 hour work days to hold conversation. Even though mine was the highest SAT score up until that point at the school, I didn’t make it close to 99th percentile in any section except the math. Math got me into college.
I bring up their backgrounds not because they were notable but because they were different enough from mine that it necessarily meant that no matter how suited we were for one another in every other way, the relationship would fall on rocky road over our staggeringly different backgrounds and due to our inability to understand each other’s struggle.
That’s the difficult part, you could never truly know the struggle of another.
In the first year of my first relationship, I received countless “gifts” from my boyfriend. From meals to clothing, he justified each of these by saying that I had no money and that he enjoyed shopping for me anyway. At first, this seemed pretty innocuous, but the more I received from him, the less the act felt like receiving tokens of appreciation and more like I was his charity case.
The second relationship was initially one of those in which each person is simply infatuated by the other. We moved in together after only 3 months of beginning our relationship. The relationship flourished the more we were able to share things we had in common: we were both women of color with the curliest of hair, immigrant or immigrant once removed, and we even enjoyed the same music and past times. We talked about how being a person of color had meant prejudice and oppression throughout our lives.
One of the biggest traps oppressed people fall into is oppressing others who claim their experience was the same even though it was not. This I learned from a television show, I believe. But I think we should all own exactly our level of oppression/disadvantage, rather than be lumped into one group. Our experience was, in fact, anything but the same and it was a clear source of rift in the relationship, among other things. The thing about oppression is that it comes in many shapes and sizes. Suffering from race based discrimination is different from suffering from poverty and when you find both in an individual, as happens most often, one who only knows one struggle should not fall into the trap that they are in any way the same as someone who experiences both. To me, it often seemed that this is what this second significant other of mine felt she could do. She would talk about her disadvantage not really understanding that she and I were far from the same and it showed in interactions between us.
Don’t get me wrong, there is great disadvantage to having a little melanin in your skin in America and in many countries across the world. The argument is not that I do not acknowledge this struggle. It would be incredibly hard to given all that continues to happen–slaying by police of innocent black men and the like. Being Dominican, I face some discrimination based on my color too. I also think that across the world, there is great disadvantage in being Muslim. All we ever hear are statements of fear and hatred. The argument is not that this struggle is inferior either. The argument is about sensitivity and the fact that people get lost in their own struggles and allow those of others to be dismissed or become the source of pity. No one wants pity, we just want those who speak to us to hear what they say the way we hear it.
I remember three events in particular that really roused me but I felt no claim to an argument at the time. They may still be too small of transgressions to justify a response.
1. In May or June of 2014, before we had even started dating, we ended up at a hotel together. Our employer, our school, held a yearly professional development session that was approximately 32 hours long. The school or the city (who knows?) would pay for a night’s stay at a hotel in order to keep the staff in one place, promote team building, and work to describe what the following year will look like. The teachers were all placed in double rooms. We didn’t even share a room and somehow, she ended up in my room just as I was entering it. I happened to be so excited to be in a hotel room because it was the first time I had ever had the luxury to be in one. In my mind, hotels were places people slept in during vacation, and my family had never once taken a vacation. I was 22 at the time and she looked at me confused and asked “have you never been in a hotel?” When I said no, there was silence for at least the following three minutes.
2. After about a year of dating, she asked me, out of the blue, what my credit score was. I didn’t see the harm and so I told her what I remember seeing last. She then continued about what she was up to. I left the room and wondered what the question had been about. I returned to the room and asked why she wanted to know. She replied “I was just curious.” I left again. I knew that had I asked more questions, the interaction would turn hostile. I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to justify that my actually really good score was the result of having 4 credit cards, each of which get payed each month. And yes, one of these credit cards has an ungodly balance on it because I used it while I studied abroad because, dammit I ain’t got a daddy let alone one who will pay for my life to go on, and of all the things I wanted on this earth during college, studying abroad was number one on the list, and number two and number three. I wanted to scream that she has never had to pay her mother’s rent or car insurance or buy her mother food when the food stamps ran out and that’s why I put things on credit cards–so that any liquid I do have is reserved for when credit is not a valid paying option. I am infuriated just thinking about it now.
3. Also toward the one year mark of our relationship, she had gotten pretty frustrated at my always forgetting to turn the vent on in the bathroom when I showered. I never, ever remembered. This was maybe the third time she had asked me to remember to turn it on and I just kept forgetting. This time, though, she asked with a certain level of disdain in her voice and followed it with “if you don’t turn it on, we will get mold and a build up of soap scum that we’ll have to clean” or something to that effect. I had two responses for her, but only vocalized one. The one I didn’t say was that I was the one cleaning the bathroom anyway, so was it really a problem she’d even see? What I did say was “oooh..I wonder what people without vents do…” I was specifically referring to the bathroom in the project building apartment in Harlem I had grown up in and in which my mother and sisters still lived, which had no window either and which we somehow managed to keep mold and soap scum free. She knew this too as she had visited many times. She didn’t realize that she had had a vent her whole life and, therefore, knew why a vent was a thing in the first place, while I, who had had none, didn’t realize its value. My response was not to the request but rather to the outright indignant nature of her request, as if she was being personally assaulted by my lack of adherence to her standards of household care (which by the way, vacillated anyway).
These don’t seem like significant events or as though they were attacks on my upbringing but they certainly felt that way. I don’t believe she even realized what each of these statements did to my self worth and esteem–as if these are made of the ability to pay for things, things she took for granted like hotel stays and bathroom vents.
The on-and-off-and-on-again boyfriend I had in between all of this was actually a kid I had known since middle school. He immigrated here and entered the 6th grade with me. He was in the ESL class and the only reason I got to meet him was that my older sister and his older sister were best friends. He asked my mother if he could ask me out before he did, like a true “gentleman” (the only reason he didn’t ask my father was because he wasn’t around). He grew up, much like me, watching his back so as to not end up in trouble and counting his pennies so as to have enough until the next time he got lucky. He went to a state college and then got into a Masters program at Columbia University. At one point, I told him how hard it would be and that he should brace himself for that and now I feel incredibly guilty that I may have caused him to believe he wasn’t good enough. He ended up dropping out of the program shortly after it had begun. I thought my intentions were good, but I ended up sabotaging him. Why did I do that? Do we do this to each other often–do we tear each other down when we should be supporting each other?
I had felt, that of all my friends growing up, he and I were most alike when it came to ambitions. We wanted a lot out of the cards we were dealt and were willing to work really hard to achieve our goals. Now that I am just a couple steps ahead, with a Masters and almost an MD on the belt, we no longer align this way and consequently, have seen very little of each other in the past 2 years.
Its not like I can date anyone else from where I grew up. They would never understand the long days of head in the books, the long nights agonizing over exams, the hours upon hours spent at the hospital. They would slander my life choices because a Hispanic woman who bears no children within a certain time is problematic and a Hispanic woman who is not home to ensure there is a meal on the table for the husband is a problem. How do I justify my life choices to those who hold these beliefs? The answer is, I cannot.
There are maybe three or four people I knew in high school pursuing graduate education, that I know of. So to make matters worse, the relationship would be one sided when it comes to income, if I were to date anyone that wasn’t those four people. Who wants that? Can we see how small I think my dating pool might be?
I wonder, is it possible to find someone who understands both my struggle and my ambition or should I settle for that feeling of inferior self worth in exchange for companionship?