“So what do you do?” The man in the straw fedora puts a dog in my lap and waits for an answer. The taxi driver nods and says “Mhmm mhmm.” The women on the bus hand me old receipt papers on which they have scribbled the book titles I need to read. A kid at the hostel says “Let me tell you a story.” They have all asked the same question.
When I tell people that I research infectious diseases, their eyes bug out a bit and stories surface and sometimes they feel the urge to show me this rash they’ve been having or some live infection they have or had — look, right here. Infections and diseases seem to be subjects everyone loves, unless they are in the midst of experiencing one. Even then, the enthusiasm for parasites seems just as contagious as the bugs themselves.
I am in Maui, Hawaii. When the sun sets and it is too dark for me to walk, I hail a cab and George drives me to a hostel in the sleepy small town of Wailuku. He says he loves biology and if I ever need a job, he has a good one lined up. He tells me that Hawaii is having problems with “the flesh-eating bacteria,” as he calls them. “One day my friend scrapes his leg, the next day he has his leg cut open and they are power-washing his muscles with saline.” That is what George says happens when antibiotics stop working: they have to power-wash you clean. He thinks the problem is twofold: 1. the pharmaceutical companies pressure doctors to over-prescribe antibiotics and 2. the patients lack a sense of personal responsibility. “If I were a doctor, I wouldn’t put up with this. You go home and wash your wound and put on the ointment. You don’t like sanitation? Let’s go ahead then and schedule the amputation.” He has a funny sense of humor, and I’m laughing in the back of the cab as George continues on in his hypothetical, and heavily sarcastic, conversation between his imaginary patient and doctor. “As soon as we start talking about chopping toes off, people stop overusing antibiotics and start preventing the need for them in the first place.” Well said George. Even if the scope of the problem is much bigger, he makes a good point.
On Wednesday, I walk for sixteen miles before my feet give in and I sit down next to a cardboard box filled with breadfruit that says “FREE.” A truck pulls up and two suntanned men ask me if I know what to do with a breadfruit. I don’t so they stop for a minute and give me cooking instructions. An hour later, I’m in a hostel kitchen attempting to make breadfruit, and fellow “cooks” are asking “So what do you do?” From the looks of my breadfruit, I evidently don’t make my living cooking. As soon as I finish a one sentence spiel about diseases or malaria or evolution, I get a story about a friend of a friend who has malaria, “And you know what? It never goes away. He gets his blood filtered like he’s on dialysis and he just keeps doing that for the rest of his life.”
One night I am sharing a dorm room with a traveler from Victoria Island, B.C. She asks me how I feel about mandatory vaccination. Certain hospitals in B.C. mandate employees get vaccinated against flu or they are obliged to wear face masks. Some of the hospital employees sued, thinking that their freedom of choice was being violated. “I get it,” she says, “some people are anti-vaccine.” She sees the problem as being more so that the people abstaining from vaccination and the people mandating vaccination don’t listen to each other. She says she sees the same thing in her line of work with environmentalists and oil companies: both say no to whatever the other party is advocating regardless of their reasoning. “No one is listening to why the other party is doing what they are doing. It’s the same thing with the mandated vaccination. The people who are anti-vaccine are so anti-vaccine, and the people who are pro-vaccine are so pro-vaccine.”
Inside an art gallery, I am handed Josie, a fourteen year old fluffy white dog, that I am told will freak out if she touches the floor. “Just keep holding her for a while.” This isn’t what usually happens in art galleries, but Josie is cute and easy to hold so I keep her under my arm while her owner, Jerry, sifts through drawings he wants to show me. The conversation eventually turns from art to the same question of what I do and to another story. “You know what,” says Jerry, “there are worse things than infections out there. What really kills a person is cancer and I bet you wouldn’t believe the most toxic carcinogenic substance out there.” He pauses, waiting for me to ask “What is the most toxic carcinogenic substance out there?” When I just sit there waiting for him to continue, he says “Ice cold water.” I never argue with strangers so I say “Okay, ice cold water.” He asks me what happens when you put chicken noodle soup in the refrigerator and I say that it congeals and gets gloopy on the top. He says “Exactly, and that is what happens to your body when you put ice cold water inside it. When you keep doing that everyday, it gets worse than the chicken soup.”
On the bus, I sit next to two women who just finished “wwoofing” (volunteering for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). They are spending time traveling before they head back to their “real jobs.” They both want to talk about herbal medicine. “The problem you are having with drug resistance,” they tell me, “is only happening because allopathic medicine is taking plants apart to isolate a compound that was never designed to work by itself.” Their comment is made casually as though asking, why would you ever expect active compounds to work? Almost every drug we have on market is an isolated active compound originally inspired by medicinal plants, herbs or fungi. I need to talk to more farmers. They start scribbling book titles down that I need to read. I have added them to the never ending reading list and moved them to the top.
The question of what we do becomes self-defining. The more I travel, the more I meet people I have never met before, and the more I come to realize the way in which our culture unconsciously equates what we do with who we are. We emphasize verbs. We ask what do you do rather than what do you think or believe or aspire to be. I am learning to embrace this. Maybe we need the push “to do” rather than “to be”, and the constant inquiry of “So what do you do?” encourages an evaluation of action — if we are going to be defined by our actions, I need to start thinking more critically of those I chose to do.
There is an expression that goes something like “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Talking to people seems to be the same way. The more people you know, the more people you realize you don’t know — which scares me a bit knowing that without ever being able to talk to everyone, we may be missing so much of what is known in this world. Conversations are brain-expanders. When I speak with someone outside my “zone” of work, comfort or culture, I feel a tiny piece of brain expanding. The neurons in there are feeling out new space. It doesn’t matter whether other people’s ideas are “right” or “wrong” or different from yours or mine, it’s the ability to experience for just a second how someone else is processing the world we share. When I feel like I’m bumming off work for too long, traveling and “on vacation,” I ask myself: are we ever not working? If work becomes a part of who we are, we inevitably end up taking our work well outside of the office.