Sensitivities

Since I’ve been writing down my memories, some of these things I figured would become evident over time. However, that project is moving very slowly, so maybe I’ll summarize a few points. First of all, there are two things I think about myself, but I don’t like to say because I have learned appropriate social behavior well enough. First of all, I had the misfortune of having been born smart. Don’t for a moment think that that makes me believe that I’m always right. Trust me, when I make blunders they can be doozies. But I don’t fit in to society well. The television just doesn’t amuse me much. Neither does shopping. Or “girl talk.” Usually, I explain it to people as being similar to being very tall. Everyone thinks taller is better, but, once you get past a certain height, it’s difficult to fit in certain cars, chairs can be uncomfortable, doorways can be too low. There are definitely good points to being smart, but sometimes you don’t quite fit in.

Here’s the second point, and it’s frankly anti-social to say this: When I was young, I was pretty. It’s not good to say positive things about yourself, but a woman describing herself as pretty is a particular taboo. You’re supposed to pretend you don’t know, like you don’t even own a mirror. Maybe I can say this because I’m a dumpy middle-aged woman now. I wasn’t beautiful in the tall, imposing ice queen sort of way. I was the “hot number” in the petite, vaguely exotic, little “spitfire” sort of way. It’s a little weird because my inside doesn’t match my outside very well. Outside of the fact that I do, indeed, like sex, most of the other assumptions people make about me based on my appearance are highly inaccurate. Most of them are more amusing than annoying. For instance, on several occasions, I’ve had people ask if I wanted to join a band as a singer. A singer! Ha ha ha ha. Man, I am the world’s worst singer. Just because I’m cute and was wearing some hip clothes that day? Wow. To paraphrase Groucho, I wouldn’t join any band that would have me.

While that one’s funny, one assumption that people make about me, or often made when I was younger, was that I was dumb. Throughout college, I felt that I had to prove to every damned professor that I was worth something. I once turned in a mid-term paper and had a professor tell me he didn’t believe I wrote it. I said, “If you’re accusing me of plagiarism, I’d like to know where you think I got it.” He said, “I don’t know, but you couldn’t have written it.” I had to go to his office and defend my paper verbally. In the end he apologized. Mostly, the examples are smaller. Like the first week of class having the professor make eye-contact and single you out and say, “Are you following.” I’d watch and they wouldn’t say that to the other students. There was something about me. I looked dumb. Usually, after the first paper or exam, that would stop.

If college was bad, work was worse. Job interviews are damned near impossible. A male programmer I was dating asked why I was going for an MS in Comp Sci. By a coincidence, we were having dinner at a table next to a couple of other programmers. They were discussing a movie they had seen recently. They didn’t like a casting. A female scientist looked to hot to be believable. A nodded towards their table and said, “That’s why.”

Anyway, the consequence of all this is that the accusation that I just don’t understand something because I don’t have the intellectual capability is a sore spot for me. It’s an old sore, and something I’ll never be able to entirely shrug off. It’s funny, because on the internet it has nothing to do with my appearance.

On top of that, there’s a second hurt. It’s funny because I’m probably not the most gung-ho American as a general rule. I can be pretty critical of our society and our politics. I’ve had a disproportionate number of foreign boyfriends. (Sometime I joke that after a Canadian, a Korean and an Israeli, I said that I wasn’t going to date another foreigner – and I didn’t get laid for two years. Finally I broke down and wound up with an Argentinian.) I like spending time in certain other foreign countries.

However, that aforementioned Canadian, I married him. I spent four years living in Quebec City. If I had felt that stereotypes about small, dark, attractive women were a pain, I hadn’t yet felt how it was to be stereotyped as an American. Yes, we’re all dumb, religious and anti-intellectual. I’m sure anyone who has read this blog has an idea of how well that description fits me. Add to that the fact that I was in an entirely Francophone environment, making huge grammatical mistakes and with a limited vocabulary. Everyone treated me like a half-wit. My only consolation, and I thought of it often at that time, is that I had never been mean to immigrants in the U.S. I never called anyone stupid for not speaking English. I was isolated. Lonely. I can’t even express the depths of the lonliness I felt at that time. I feel like it permanently scarred me. Regularly treated as if I was a half-wit. Ever since then, I haven’t had the same tolerance for certain American stereotypes. The stereotypes of Americans added to my loneliness and isolation.

Maybe I’m just thin-skinned. Maybe these aren’t really explanations. But it’s easier for me to deal with disagreements based on ideas than with implications that I’m just not that smart.

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6 comments
  1. As soon as I read this it was like deja vue all over again. When I was a freshman in college, right out of high school, I also turned in a paper. When the instructor returned the other students’ papers, he asked me to stay after class. Same scene, different era (I suspect)…he said I could not have written the paper, that I must have copied it from someone else, someone he said was a “professional.” I was in college on a full scholarship that had been, largely, orchestrated by my senior year English teacher. The professor in question was a good friend…I’d been told to be sure to be in his class because it was where I could learn. I wish I could say that the professor accepted my outraged denials, but it took a call from his friend my high school teacher to make him retract his accusations. Like you, I tried to be like “everyone else” to be popular…it didn’t work, because smart isn’t something one can truly hide. Now, at 65+ I enjoy using all the “big words” I used to try to rephrase into easily understandable conversation. I enjoy not caring a fig about who thinks what about me. I’m right behind you, believe me because I’ve been there, too.

  2. it ain’t bad to be thin skinned especially when you know you are since you know the limits to what you can stand. Don’t take people who stereotype too seriously.
    And this is not related to this post, why are you saying goodbye? Who has annoyed you.
    Keep the good cheer and keep writing, ignore those blogs you don’t like and be happy. There are a million + bloggers out there and am sure not all of them are condescending!

  3. vastlycurious.com said:

    I could have written at least the first half almost verbatim. We split paths at the Canadian. I have determined that becoming invisible happens so you will begin to concentrate on what really makes YOU happy. It’s a struggle but I am doing it day by day. Nice Blog. Glad you stuck around.

    • fojap said:

      Well, that’s why I’m especially sensitive to anti-Americanism. I also learned while I was there that a lot of things people on the American left, and I include myself in that group, complain about as being Ameican faults are frequently universal human failings. Just this morning I read an article in the New York Review of Books which quoted the Guardian as saying:

      Scientology is a neat reflection of the worst aspects of American culture with its repulsive veneration of celebrity; its weird attitudes towards women, sex, healthcare and contraception; its promise of equality among its followers but actual crushing inequality…. It is, in its own dark way, the inevitable religion to emerge from 20th-century America.

      The “American culture with its repulsive veneration of celebrity?” Have they looked at their own tabloids lately? The fascination with celebrity is definitely something I don’t like in American culture, but it’s hardly a uniquely American failing. Xenophobia, racism, prejudice, anti-intellecutalism, machismo… I encountered all of these in Canada. I don’t mean to say that Canadians are uniquely guilty of these behaviors, but neither are Americans. My father-in-law told me that he had constantly been accused of being gay. “If a man wants to dress nicely, if he wants to put on a little cologne and not smell like a pig, they think you’re gay. ‘Real men’ look like lumberjacks.” The word lumberjack marks him as Canadian, but the social dynamics behind that complain coud be found, with differences in actual styles, all over the world. I don’t say any of this to knock Canadians. I think Canada’s great and so are most Canadians. I use them for comparison only because I lived there long enought to see both the good and the bad. I believe this mix of good and bad exists in all countries.

      I did have all the usual difficulties people encounter as an immigrant. Potential employers would say things like, “Why should I hire a foreigner when Canadians are out of work?” They would angrily yell at me to learn French when I was trying my best. My husband said that it shouldn’t bother me because the United States was a big powerful country. He never seemed to understand that coming from a big powerful country didn’t make me a big powerful individual. I felt just as vulnerable as immigrants I met from South America and the Balkans.

      • vastlycurious.com said:

        Every time I try to write a response to long it deletes it!
        Bravo! Discrimination is everywhere and will always will be. Even the events in Boston do not serve to strengthen humanity which is sadder still. I am constantly discriminated for being a woman in construction but I just try and live with it! The word repulsive caught my eye too,Thanks for such a nice answer!

  4. only thin-skinned? No, I believe, that you described all things very well. Congrats, that you nevertheless still are a passionate thinker – no matter how good you are looking!

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