I met C through mutual friends at a party a year ago. We made eye contact and smiled at each other, but we didn’t have a chance to talk properly at the time. Soon after the party, he added me on Facebook, and we started messaging back and forth enthusiastically. I thought he was cute and was interested in meeting up, but unfortunately, by the time we spoke, he had already left London for New York to do a Master’s degree, and said he would be back in a few months for a visit.
Meanwhile, we kept in touch on social media on friendly terms. We would never talk about family or money, and not that it mattered to me, but from C’s online presence and our occasional conversations, I quickly gathered that he came from a much more privileged background than me. He would frequently post travel photos from private beaches and 5-star resorts, or casually mention going to a Michelin-star restaurant while keeping me updated with snaps of the high-end food.
I didn’t think much of it then, because I didn’t believe it would or should change anything between us, especially if we had interest in each other and perhaps could connect on deep levels. Fast forward to a few months later: C texted me saying he was back in town and would love to get together. He let me choose the place and time, which was when I realized our differences in background did affect my behavior towards him. I couldn’t just choose any random place, or the places I frequented with a budget, because every time I thought of one, I would imagine him comparing it to all the fancy restaurants he had been to and judging my taste.
I know I shouldn’t have thought of it that way and should have stayed true to myself, but to be completely honest with you — and trust me, I wasn’t proud of this — I felt a pressure to keep up with his lifestyle. I didn’t want him to think I was cheap. I wanted him to think I was cool, I had good taste, I was living just as comfortably as he was. I tried to act as though whatever he was doing with his life was normal to me so that there wouldn’t be a barrier between us. In hindsight, I had this mentality because I was interested in him and wanted us to get along, but also because I used to attend a private school before university and was mostly surrounded by people like him.
While I was able to go thanks to a scholarship, most of my classmates came from very wealthy families. They would talk about things I had only seen in movies. However, I wanted to fit in with them, so I made sure they’d never know that — how overwhelmed I was listening to their extravagant stories. Over time, it became habit to just act like money wasn’t a factor, and the last thing I’d want to say was, “Sorry, I don’t have enough money for that.” Now, interacting with C, that side of me reemerged. I wanted to fit in with him and his lifestyle. I didn’t want money to be a factor between us, or have to say to him that I didn’t have enough money for whatever place he would like us to go to.
In the end, I chose a Sushi place — one of my favorites — which was considered good quality and definitely not cheap. One small dish could cost as much as $20 and the total bill for two could easily go up to $100. At the time, I was still a student. I had about $150 left in my bank account for the month. I was thinking I would order something small with no drinks and it would be fine. As we got there and seated, he looked at the menu and didn’t seem impressed. He went for a selection of Sashimi, noting to me that he was used to “authentic Japanese” and “fine dining” while pointing out that most of the dishes (including my order) were too Westernized — not even “real Sushi.” That was when I first got uncomfortable, but I tried to brush it off.
As the evening went on, we started to talk about more things, including our hobbies. He told me he loved traveling, fine dining, playing golf, and especially fashion. He dropped designer names I didn’t even know how to spell, and asked me where I usually went shopping for clothes and what my favorite brands were. Mind you — I’ve never been a big fashion person, mainly because I couldn’t afford to be one. I’d have to save up for a decent winter coat, let alone designer clothes. So I didn’t have a good answer for him, and again, he wasn’t impressed. He continued to share his traveling stories, including the frequent trips between New York and London, and ask me about mine. At this point in life, I’d only been to one small European city to visit a relative about two Christmases ago. It was memorable to me, though apparently and naturally, it was not so interesting to him.
After my final attempt to find a common ground by steering the conversation to books and learning that he wasn’t a reader, I gave up. It became painfully obvious that this wasn’t going to end well. I suppose in his eyes, I might have been terribly uncool and boring and fell extremely short of his expectations. I didn’t know about fashion, about good food and wasn’t well-travelled — all the things that were genuinely important to him. If I had still been in that private school, being the insecure me, I’m pretty sure my immediate reaction to this disaster date would be feeling inadequate, wishing I could be more like him and trying even harder to gain his approval. However, the 2016 me, gladly, knew better than that. I accepted that money could be a factor between us and that my life was different from his, and it was okay. I didn’t have to fit in with him or impress him by being someone I was not.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think everyone from a similar background as his would act the way he did, and I don’t think of him negatively for being the way he was. I simply find it interesting that for him, what he values is so strongly tied to money that it becomes integral to his identity. Without money, he wouldn’t be able to do many of the things that make him feel like himself. For example, at one point he said he took pleasure from randomly gifting his friends, or even strangers; it’s who he is, and people love him for that. I won’t lie and say I wouldn’t want to be like that, too — the friend who’s generous to everyone, who always orders cocktails and desserts after dinner and picks up the tab saying “Let me take this.” But my financial situation doesn’t allow me to be that girl. Because of money, I’m not the fashion girl, the well-travelled girl, or the put-together girl who always has her nails and hair beautifully done. I don’t have having money as part of my narrative yet.
I didn’t have deep conversations with C, so I didn’t know what he might have underneath all those layers. Perhaps we could’ve clicked on a more fundamental level. But I learned that I can’t deny that money is a critical factor in any relationship — or just the potential of one — as it’s directly linked to one’s lifestyle, experiences and even world views, and drastic differences in these aspects can certainly pose challenges.
Personally for me, I’m glad most of the things I do aren’t enabled by money, or at least not to any extreme extent. Perhaps later in life, I will make more and be able to afford nicer things and go to nicer restaurants. For now, I will be honest to myself about my own financial situation, and stop feeling like I have to match others and consequently do things that aren’t true to me. I want to try my best to always keep the source of my joy and confidence and what people love about me as irrelevant to how much money I have as possible.
Ellen Nguyen is Vietnamese millennial girl currently residing in the UK. She writes honestly and openly about a variety of topics including love, sex, relationships and self-improvement at thetinglymind.com — you can also connect with her on Twitter.
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