Last weekend, we drove to Half Moon Bay because my idiot of a friend suddenly had that burning desire to see a big body of water. Down at the harbor, we chatted up two fishermen. The captain was a tall, blond, skinny man in his early twenties. He was the youngest captain around so people called him Captain Kid. He was a sweetheart, smiled an I-made-it smile and walked on shore with the same instability he would have on water. Half way into the conversation, we realized he was stoned out of his mind. “Marijuana oil from Oregon guys, the best,” he told us. The other guy introduced himself as Jimmy. He was a charming and eloquent man. He was in his late twenties but already had a few kids scattering about the country. The conversation went on for almost two hours. They taught us about fishing, living on water and getting along with other drunken men in a confined space. Fishing is tough. Sometime they would have to stay in the middle of the ocean for 36 hours, doing physically demanding tasks and getting as little as 4 hours of sleep. They taught us if we ever wanted to travel cheap, try to get a ride with one of those cargo freights. We told them something stupid we all have done at some point in our life and we laughed together. We were becoming like brothers, you know. When it was time for us to drive back, they bid us goodbye and Jimmy asked:
“Oh by the way, where do you kids go to school?”
It seemed like such an innocent question, right? But none of us knew how to answer. Not one, not two, but all four of us looked at each other in awkward silence. And when it became too awkward, we suddenly burst into laughing. In the end, my friend whispered: “Stanford.”
On the way back, we talked about the experience. Why did we feel so awkward answering such a simple question?
All my friends agreed that they always felt like people immediately judged them. “Ah, you’re one of those kids.” In most cases, going to Stanford means that you must have a decently privileged background. The median family income at Stanford is twice as high as the median family income in the US, despite the fact that 8.8% of our students are international, many of them come from countries with a much lower GDP than the US. A daughter of the world’s richest man is in our class. Our friends get their pilot license when they are 18. At lunch table after spring break, we talk about our travels to Bahamas, China, Patagonia.
As for me, I felt more embarrassed than awkward. I was embarrassed of how privileged I am. I felt like I had been emotionally cheating them. We were acting like we knew what their life was like, but we don’t. We don’t have to take showers at a public restroom. We don’t have to share a 9-square-foot bedroom/living-room/kitchen with 3 other unshaven men. We don’t have to worry about making enough money each month to send back home. Our internships pay more than many people’s full-time jobs. A friend of mine just rejected an internship because it offered only 20 grand for 12 weeks. It’s all ridiculous. Talking to these fishermen made me realize that we have been treated way better than we deserve.
But then again, I wonder if this awkwardness is something that we have been building in our head. Do people really give us Stanford kids any thought at all? Have we been in the Stanford bubble for so long that we have forgotten how little we are in the real world?
It was a necessary wake up call.