You get what you tolerate.
Be careful what you tolerate. You are teaching people how to treat you.
READ. THAT. AGAIN.
Last week I was in Israel. I hadn’t eaten a thing on Shabbat and when 3pm rolled around, I started to feel a repetitive thud at the base of my skull, fatigue wash over me, and my famous teenage mood. It meant only one thing, I needed food. And probably more than that, a safe place to rest my feet and clear my head of the past few months working and going to school, that morning’s kerfuffle with Airbnb, and the congestion from a cold I was determined to pretend wasn’t happening.
I had found the perfect place, a trendy rooftop restaurant with a beautiful menu and just the right amount of people — not too packed where I might feel like a loner, but not empty either, which meant I didn’t need to be the sole focus of the host, waiters, kitchen and cleaners. And the view was perfect, overlooking all of Jerusalem as the rain pattered on the rooftop above and the breeze blew in.
And yet, I was the sole focus.
My waiter at first seems perfectly nice, asking if I’d received the menu (no) and rushing to bring one over, not once breaking eye contact, “Here you go. Thank you, God bless.”
I order a drink to which again he replies, “Thank youuuu, God bless.”
But as soon as I speak a few more words other than beer and water, he clocks onto my accent. “From America?” “Yes.” “I’m going to Texas soon to visit a brewery. I want to move to America and create beer from ‘The Holy Land.’ I just love America. Where are you from?”
“Chicago,” I say. He still hasn’t broken his stare. It’s not even a stare, he’s gawking at me. He isn’t leaving or saying anything, just smiling. I feel a pit in my throat, wondering if I’ll ever eat today because now I’m feeling really desperate. So I say, “Have you been?” “No, but I want to explore all of America. I have family in X.” And then after some more staring, he says, “Thank you, God bless.” And I too smile, thrilled he’s finally going to put my order in.
I try to sit in peace, just overlooking the city. I used to wonder how my Oma could sit on a park bench for hours just staring — wasn’t she bored? But now I understand. I just needed my brain to switch off. But between my waiter and the other, painfully slowly dressing the table in front of me to sneak glances my way, I begin to feel panic rise up within. If I don’t look busy, they might come talk to me. So instead of relaxing and enjoying the view, I begin busying myself to avoid looking free to talk. I had no food, so the time was ripe for discussion.
The food doesn’t take long, and he parts again with a “Thank you, God bless,” and I begin to wonder why God isn’t blessing me with his permanent disappearance.
My problem is I giggle when I’m nervous or when I desperately want to get out of a situation. And unfortunately, it gives the person I’m conversing with the wrong impression. The best way to describe it is in that moment I leave my body and watch from the TV screen. I see how uncomfortable I am and I listen to my heavy sighs and watch my scrunched up face — it looks like a comedy from an outside perspective which sets me off. And when I add jokes like, ‘God make him disappear,’ and imagine him being plucked out from the heavens and dropped over the edge, I laugh even harder.
Feeling somewhat recharged, he clears my plate and comes over with the dessert menu. The dessert then comes and I wait to get started, just wanting to savour the time. Surely with food I won’t be bothered. But then he comes, asking if everything is ok (it was before he came). The can of worms has been opened. “So are you studying?”
This is the second time he’s asked if I am studying. “No.” “What do you do in Chicago?” “I work in alcohol, but I live in London.” “Why would you leave America?” “I just love London.” “I can’t wait to move there...”
There’s a curiosity inside of me. I was curious as to what his background was. How was it that he was able to work on a Saturday? He was a goldsmith here, but wants to create beer from the Holy Land to market in a conservative state. He thought he was being smart, playing into the hearts of hyper-religious Americans. America offered freedom. I wonder if people still feel that way with our current political situation. He then says he is Palestinian, living in Bethlehem and I understand why he’s working today. He tells me how much he makes in a month (he’s doing very well) and when I question how he would obtain a US visa — is it hard?, he shrugs a bit, looking at me like I’m his ticket in. He tells me material things are of no importance to him, and as he fishes for an example of what people might value, he begins to stare at my chest, lingering far too long. He’s looking at my moon necklace, and his intention is to point out jewellery in the context of how people wear their wealth. But all of a sudden I realise the crescent moon I wear daily is almost, in fact, a political statement within Israel, choosing a religion amongst the three. His religion.
By now my dessert is cold, and he God blesses me before leaving again. I breathe a sigh of relief. I had wanted to spend more of my afternoon here, listening to the rain, but now, I’m itching to leave. My head is pounding and brain fog is overcoming me. I’m out in the open air and yet I felt suffocated. I then ask for the bill. When he returns with it and sees me taking a picture of the view, he tells me to leave my things, pay later and he would take me to the other end for the better view. I just ignore him. I pay and as I gather my things, he comes over again, this time wanting to show me his jewellery business. He gets to the business on my phone via his Facebook profile, which of course he wants me to befriend. By now he had already offered to show me around Bethlehem - the irony not lost on me that his name is Josef. And do you know what, I almost clicked, ‘Add friend,’ in front of him, just to appease him.
But I don’t.
I thank him, get up and go in search of the better view.
I’m so angry. Angry that two hours have been spent pleasing someone else. Angry that my headache is so painful I need to lie down. Angry that someone doesn’t respect my space or my comfort. Angry that I had to make conversation when I didn’t feel like it.
And I only have myself to blame. And that’s perhaps what made me angriest.
Why do I constantly feel the need to make sure someone else feels comfortable despite my discomfort? Why is his wellbeing and afternoon more important than mine? Why was I about to add someone on Facebook I never wanted to see again just to make him feel better? Why did I keep finding myself in this same situation? I’ve been here before, many times in many different contexts. At work. With money. In friendships. I’ve always made excuses such as, ‘Oh, he’s going through a tough time,’ or ‘He’s being harmless, I can spare a few minutes helping to make his day better.’ But what about MY day?
As I walk home, more men stare at me. One even tells me I’m provocative. I have another begin to follow me for blocks, saying things to get me to stop. I just ignore him. I ignore them all.
When I should have said, “Can I help you? Why are you following me?” or “It’s rude of you to stare.”
Or simply, “Hi, could you please f*ck off.”
Because that is what I want. I don’t mind having a chat. I like hearing about other people’s lives. I like interacting with people of other cultures, but only when there’s no agenda. And when my boundaries, time, and body are respected. We begin to feel icky as human beings when we know someone has ulterior motives, or when they’re using manipulation techniques. They may be so charming or have no qualms with being perceived like a lost soul, forever in your debt, but they know just how to work you.
I should have told Josef, “Thank you, I’d like to enjoy my hours here alone.” That would have been perfectly pleasant and to the point. But I was so nervous of him feeling like an idiot that I chose to bear the discomfort. Plus, that would have made me feel awkward - to assume he was coming onto me and then have him say, “It’s not like that. You’ve misunderstood me.” How many times have I heard that before… No, no, that wasn’t my intention. You’ve got me all wrong. I was just being nice.
The funny thing is, my intention was also just to be nice. That’s why I usually put up with stuff I don’t want to — to be nice.
What I have found though, is that there is a difference between being nice and kind. Being nice is the act of pleasing others. Being kind, on the other hand, is the act of speaking candidly but with compassion. It’s like that song, ‘You gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure.’ The truth without kindness is cruelty. But truth with kindness is and understanding of our own self worth.
The more I continue to behave the way I do, the more other people continue to think their behaviour is ok. It starts and stops with me.