Sunday, February 9, 2014

I made a mistake today.

I was at a specialty grocery store, hunting for some peanut butter, when a bottle of coffee-flavoring syrup caught my eye. As I examined the bottle, a fellow shopper smiled at me, speaking quickly in Russian and gesturing towards the shelf. 

"Что?" I asked.

He repeated himself.

"извините," I apologized, "я не могу говорить по-русски." I had already said this several times over the course of the day. I waited for him to shoot me a comprehending smile, nod, and then walk away, as had happened several times over the course of the day.

But then, with no hint of an accent he ask, "You speak English, then?"

I was dumbfounded. "Yes! Of course! What were you saying?"

He reiterated, in English, that he was wondering if the syrup was any good, and asked me where I was from. When I told him the States he said, "Ah, you're a mssnary?"

"Um, I'm a teacher," I clarified, simultaneously vamping and wondering who the heck this guy was. And he asked me a few more questions about peanut butter, learning Russian, and then hit me with an invitation to have coffee or drinks. "Well, I can't right now," I told him, grappling for an excuse, "But that's very kind of you." And THIS is about where I made my mistake. The second I realized he was not just a friendly local chatting with the weird foreigner I should have been clear that . . . well, actually, that what? I wasn't interested in getting to know him? Kinda harsh. That I don't date strangers I meet in the supermarket in foreign countries? I mean, I never consciously made that rule, but it seems reasonable rule to have. 

But this isn't my home culture, and, I'm always so desperate to affirm and avoid letting down complete strangers, and, I screwed up. He told me we could meet whenever would be comfortable for me, and I said okay, and then I took his phone number, and then he called his phone from mine. In what seemed like the very blink of an instant I was past the point of no return. 

"When do you leave?" he asked, just before walking away.

"In June," I told him, feeling relieved, as this answer had worked the last time someone tried to pick me up in the supermarket.

Instead he smiled, "It's plenty of time." 

After all this transpired, I wanted to 1) hide (which I did, over by the soy sauce, where he saw me again and showed me the pastry he had bought for our meeting, which I declined, but he handily shrugged off) and 2) slam my head into something thick and hard. I could scarcely believe 1) that this had even happened, and 2) that I had gone along with and participated in the whole exchange. I think I even smiled.

This experience is just one of many that prove to me that my feelings guide my actions, not my thoughts. If I had been rational about this whole thing when he asked about having coffee I would have said, "Thanks but no thanks." But for whatever reason I didn't feel like I had the power to turn him down. Communicating my discomfort felt impolite. I didn't want to let him down, I wanted to affirm him, so I went along with something that made me uncomfortable to the point that I wrote a check I didn't intend to cash. I never crossed my mind at any point until it was too late to just say, "Sorry, no."

I'm reminded of that time Sarah nearly got engaged on the train to Astana. She spent three and a half hours feeling acutely uncomfortable while I tried to buffer this guy's advances. It was not the most fun train ride for her, but we couldn't ask him to leave or stop, so she bore the discomfort in silence. (Hopefully in retrospect it's loads funnier, though!) Talking about it with Stuart afterward I was struck by his perspective on the whole thing: if you feel uncomfortable, say so. So the guy wanted to come to dinner with us, no big deal; all we had to do was say no. 

It's like, that honestly never occurred to me. 

Lightbulb: You're allowed to shoot people down. You're allowed to reject people. You're allowed to not be interested. Or, I mean, those are all rather harsh ways of thinking about it, but what I mean is, if you don't want to have coffee or drinks with the random guy you meet in the supermarket, you're allowed to say so. Saying "Sure!" when you don't mean it is far worse than a sincere "No thanks." And this is the big mistake I made.

The guy called this evening. I had told Bet my tale of woe so that if he called when she had the phone (we share) she would know not to tell him I'd call him right back. And I told Teka because it was kind of a funny story. But, oh, then he called, and David said I needed to answer and be straight with him and tell him I'm not interested.

(I mean, "not interested" are not the words I would use. "Creeped out" are the words I would use. "Morally opposed" are the words I would use. But I can see how that might but considered an uncharitable way of putting it.)

Instead I just let it ring and ring and ring. If he calls again I'll probably have to answer and tell him I won't be meeting him for coffee (I mean, I fleetingly considered it, banking on the likelihood that after one conversation he'd quickly become disinterested, because I would rather go through with an uncomfortable situation than break the news that I'm not interested) because, I don't know, it's the right thing to do, and the consequence of my mistake. 

So if you're wondering what I'm doing overseas, contributing to stereotypes about how American women are flirts but flakey is just one of many things I have my hand in. Gotta let my mistakes all hang out so that at least others can learn from them. 

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