Do you know that general feeling of tension and malaise you get when you are in the middle of a job hunt? The reluctance to check your e-mail because there may not be any news of the job hunt, or worse, that there is a letter. The pit in the bottom of your stomach when an e-mails pops into your mailbox with a job title in the subject line. The unease with which you open it, bracing yourself for rejection. After all, you applied to dozens of positions, and realistically only expect to get a few offers. The inevitable feeling of worthlessness that washes over you, however briefly, when you see yet another rejection. The process of trying to talk yourself out of the conviction that the rejection is a judgement of you as a person, even though rationally you know it is nothing of the sort.
Yeah, that feeling. The one that comes from repeated rejection.
I've been looking for housing in Small City. I have been sending out dozens of e-mails to ads for rooms. Since I am still spending most of my time in His Town, I do not contact at housing agent in Small City. I am mostly working off with people who have listed places independently. And I get .... nothing. Or at least very little.
Most people do not respond to my e-mails at all. Those that do, respond with a polite but curt statement of non-interest. I have almost always gotten housing from newspaper ads (before Craig's List), word or mouth or Craig's List in my many houses in my undergrad, grad and post doc years. I have never been in a situation where my e-mails have gone almost completely unanswered. I have always managed to find several people interested in showing me their properties.
Perhaps I am transplanting my American reliance on Craig's List for all my housing and second hand needs into a culture that is not used to working outside housing agents. Perhaps I am giving off some sort of odd but subtle negative signal in the way I am approaching prospective landlords. Perhaps my situation is a bit out of the ordinary, and that makes people hesitant to answer. Whatever the reason, I start feeling the way about housing that I feel about rejection letters for jobs. I start wondering if there is something wrong with my mail server.
Then my partner points out my name. I have visions of potential housemates not wishing to live with a fresh off the boat academic from a third world country who speaks English with a heavy accent and has who knows what strange habits. They are not very nice visions. They focus an ugly side of my countrymen that a part of me likes to believe does not exist. They remind me of how poorly some of my fellow fresh off the boat graduate students were treated in my country. They remind me of how rudely a black friend of mine was treated at a diner I normally loved, the time I sent her in to pick up the order while I sat in the car.
We dipped into the bags for hot salty fries on the drive home, talking about how the worst part about experiences like these are the seeds of doubt they plant in one's head. Was the waitress just having a bad day? And the cook? On the same day? It could happen. It is not impossible.
Am I just doing something subtly culturally wrong? I am a gregarious American living in a staid European society. It is not impossible to believe.
The problem with cases of discrimination like this is that it is impossible to tell. But the seeds have been planted. The damage has been done.