Talking at the tandoori cafe

Sunshine seating at the New Tandoori Cafe, San Jose
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!

18 thoughts on “Talking at the tandoori cafe

  1. I’m telling you buddy, you need to quit this drama already. It’s not good for you. And, even if it is, you won’t really appreciate it while being immersed in this craziness day in and day out. Maybe a clean break would be a good idea to reevaluate where you stand on your goals and where you’re headed.

    Always having to explain yourself can be draining, but moreso if it’s tied to your profession and it becomes something you are required to do; you no longer have that choice to just be like, “Fuck off, I don’t want to answer your ignorant questions today!” God, I wish I had the courage to say THAT sometimes!

    And people who come to a meal with ulterior motives need to be stabbed already! It ruins the whole experience of opening up to each other and sharing.

    Ok, the end. I think that’s the most I’ve ever commented on your posts!

  2. “Do I want my life separated into tidy compartments, with no fear of cross-contamination?”

    mine is separated so much that i have a different persona for work and use a different name.

  3. We should talk about this topic at our next (oh-so-overdue) lunch/dinner meeting. Its debate able.

    Come, meet me soon – I swear I have no ulterior motives, Plus I always like your COSTUMES.. hahaha ;)

  4. Yasminay, me lowve, welcome to my world. They all want to hear about HijabMan, not really wanting to know Me. You’re right, it is exhausting, when all you want to do is hang out and not have to ‘tell your story.” You are more than welcome at my place anytime. I won’t ask you about your personal life. I’ll just ask you how the lemonade is, and how the sunshine is treating you, yaar. While I may not advise you to quit, I will advise you to look for something else in the same realm of what you are doing, without as much drama!

    Here’s an idea. find a job on the east coast ;)/

    Yaser: Dude. You use a different name?
    Once, at an icecream scooping gig, they called me “J.” I wanted to stab them yasminay-style with my elbow.

  5. Should we call this “identity management”?

    Relationships with other people can never really define us; I think that’s what gets bothersome about the constant attempts to explain who we are. We can’t really explain who we are, because we are limitless. The work identity, the home identity, the origins identity – they are like the layers of an onion, and when you peel them away, what is left? Something invisible. God, even. Whoops, I think I slipped into something deep.

    When we meet real friends, I think they see that invisible self. They don’t expect us to follow a script based on one of those identities. To a friend, you are you. It doesn’t really take much explanation at all.

  6. i understand what you mean, about lines blurring in your life. i’m sure it is exhausting, telling your story constantly and having virtually no separation btwn your personal and professional lives. i guess you just need to focus on the positives of it- conversing with open-minded type people etcetera.

    and hey, there ARE people who love hanging out with you – just you, not you-as-representative-of-your-company. ;-)

  7. Yasmine.
    Heres a shout- out.
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now but never felt the need to comment. For some reason today I believed that I needed to.
    I enjoy reading what it is that you have to say.
    Your online space is inspiring. Keep up the great work!

    -Achsah

  8. At least the two women didn’t try to sell you life insurance or Avon products lol.

    Of course its better to be fluid and let things flow as they will. Compartmentalize too much and you become Sybil, with multiple personalities :)

    Ya Haqq!

  9. I relish the fact that I forget entirely about my job when I am not there, except on the off occasion i have to work weekends. Maybe this is a generalization, but I believe men will find it much easier to segregate their personal and work lives, because for us, it is simply a means to make money/take care of families etc. As far as I am concerned, i could be doing plumbing, or writing software, as long as I can support the family.

  10. “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?”

    For me that is clearly no. I may spend most of my time here, but my quality time is spent with family, friends, and other non-corporate-tool activity.

  11. what cracked me up is that that chick’s comment about how you didn’t know what it was like to be different annoyed you but i bet if someone else commented about how different you were (probably working on the assumption that you weren’t not born and bred here), you’d get annoyed at that too! yay for stabby attitudes (stabitudes! tm). :D

  12. Thank you for taking the time to leave such lovely, thoughtful comments, rockstars! So much appreciated, truly. (Theodore: welcome!)

    Baji,
    I like to be difficult. You know it.

    Achsah,
    It made me smile so much to see your comment, especially on that post, because the meeting I mentioned was making me feel a bit sad and discouraged. Thank you for making your presence known! (Stick a real email address in there, will ya? My email to you got returned.)

  13. Hm. This is interesting….I’ve never had the two confused at work – the job that pays the bills. BUT my political activism did get muddled into my personal life and I realised quickly that for me to stand on any sort of moral high ground politically, meant that I had to do the same thing in my personal life (that’s when I stopped hooking….ha ha! I’M KIDDING.).

    But it’s difficult and it sucks and it is completely lame – most especially on a day when you just need to chill the eff out and relax. I think that had you been in a different state of mind, you would have likely not been so let down. I’m your friend. And I don’t even know what you do in ‘real life’…I’ll make you a deal that I hope will make up for the above – I won’t even ask what you do. How’s that? Then you know all of the love is real ;)

    Uhm…the line about the missing countries made me laugh out loud. Thank you! (And can you please take a black marker next you’re there and marker in ‘Palestine’.)

    m xox

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