This is most often the reaction I get, and question I get when I tell people I am a pilot. The shock is most often because I am a women, and second question is because people do not understand how aviation and a flying career works in North America.
I understand the shock. I get excited every time I see a women dressed as a pilot in the terminal, and I actually have had women pilots on my last two flights with Pacific Coastal and Westjet Encore so the times are changing. I also currently work for a company that only has women pilots. I think that's pretty rad. But still we make 3-10% of the "Commercial" flight pool, and averaging more around 5% worldwide. It's small and it doesn't make sense to me because anyone with good spatial awareness, decision making skills, and an interest should be able to dedicate themselves to learning to fly a plane. Yes it's expensive, and it's hard, and you need to be able to deal with all sorts of situations that our male counterparts don't have to worry about but it makes you an even stronger person in the long run. But I am head strong, independent and have never been one to shy away from a challenge and have a passion for aviation.
You need that nugget that hooks you and makes you want to continue with your studies because it really never ends. There is constant training, refreshing, and on the job learning. It's a life long commitment and complacency is a dangerous flirtation you don't want to have happen in this kind of work.
Being a commercial pilot doesn't necessarily mean you have to fly for an airline, and not flying for an airline does not make you less of a commercial pilot. We all get the mandatory 200 hour training in Canada and then opt for extra training on a multi engine aircraft, and instrument ratings so we can fly in no visibility situations, or some opt just to do helicopter or float ratings depending on where your passion lies.
The route to the airlines in Canada often means flying smaller planes for many years before qualifying to fly the larger planes. In Europe and Asia this isn't the case anymore with cadet programs, pilots can go right from the 200+ hours into a bigger jetliner carrying hundreds of passengers. We are already seeing how this system doesn't work with accidents like Asiana in San francisco, and Germanwings but that's a whole other topic.
Some may argue you are just a computer button pusher as you fly the larger more automated airplanes and there is a definite high component of this at the airline level, yet there is a cultural attraction that this is the ultimate job in the career of piloting. Yes a big plane is sexy, don't get me wrong especially when it's taking to me to an exotic destination. Landing on in the simulator (the closest I've gotten) is an amazing feeling. But just being in the air is amazing. There are so many different types of airplanes you can fly, from being a balloon operator in Cappadocia Turkey, to and short haul cargo pilot for UPS, to a private jet operator for companies, to fire suppression in helicopters, to float planes in the Maldives. These are all jobs that make you a commercial pilot and are equally rewarding as a commercial pilot. As many people don't opt for a career in the airlines it doesn't mean they aren't a good pilot, or any less of a pilot. But I understand that so many people only know about the airline as a career because that is the one that is the media and the one that we interact with the most in the global age of travel.
But maybe next time you meet a pilot you can ask them what kind of a plane they fly because now you know a little more about the basics.