Category: Dear Stranger

Dear Nice Man on the Train

I saw you when you were trying to explain to the other train passenger why you couldn’t exchange seats with her. I don’t know exactly what you said, but I was enchanted by how friendly you seemed. You were smiling all throughout as you spoke to that woman who would do anything to keep her family of eight together in the train. I wish she didn’t try so hard and inconvenience other people. 
Well the woman is beside the point. I actually just meant to appreciate your patience and friendly attitude with her. You are a person who at first glance, I would have immediately characterized as careless, unemployed and of low morals. You had an ear ring and a rough look about you. Your thin frame and dark looks made you seem like one of those men in Delhi who can’t stop staring at every woman in the vicinity. But you aren’t from Delhi, are you? You got on one of other stations of which the name I don’t recall. 
Forgive for my ignorance. I hadn’t heard of four out of six places that the train stopped at. Well that changes things. I’ve been reminded over the past few days that people in smaller towns are much nicer and less selfish than people in cities. And they’re also so much more diverse. A nice looking old man could easily be the troublemaker of the town and a rough looking young man like you could easily be the nicest person in town. In the city, on the other hand, it’s much easier to place people in broad categories and be right about them. I’m not sure why. That might just be me knowing city folks better.
Getting back to the point, your smile changed my first impression of you in a split second. It lit up your face, and your patience in explaining why you couldn’t exchange seats was admirable. I couldn’t hear what you were saying, but you sounded very reasonable. From what little I could hear three rows away, the smoothness and clarity with which you spoke, packing as many words as you could in each second, increased my confidence in my second impression of you. I was sure that you were a nice guy. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.
Hearing the benefits of smiling and the quotes that have become clichéd with time, I had become accustomed to ignoring them, and overtime, forgetting how much a smile can do. Unconsciously, I had stopped smiling as much as I used to, simply because it was more effort than keeping a straight face all the time. You reminded me that smiling does make a difference, one that matters. A smile can make somebodies day brighter, it can make a hard blow seem softer and it can make bad news better.
You also made me catch myself judging people before I talk to them. Here I am, proudly believing that I don’t judge people until I get to know them. Maybe I don’t set eyes on a person and say to myself “Oh, looks like a bitch”. But on seeing a person like you who turns out to have a personality seemingly different from what I would have expected, I realize that I do judge people simply by expecting them to be a certain way. I certainly won’t look down on you for being that way, but I’ll assume I know you already. When I expected you to be an immoral, unemployed, selfish man, I was judging you based on your looks. Even worse, I categorized you, assuming that all people who look a certain way have similar personalities and backgrounds. You challenged that and reminded me that the human race is diverse in its personalities, habits, behaviors and appearances, none of which are necessarily interconnected.
I am mostly done with my philosophical rambling, but I want to tell you one last thing. I wish I could erase the last time I saw you from my memory. It was a few minutes after I first saw you talking to the woman. You picked up your backpack and went past me towards the back of the train to find your new seat. I don’t know how that woman convinced you, or why you caved. Did you do it because you didn’t want to assert yourself and further argue with her? I know a train seat is something that doesn’t actually mean much, but seeing you give in to her relentless persuasion reminded me that there is some truth to the saying nice guys finish last. The people who are kind and sensitive to other people’s troubles get left behind when there are selfish people to take advantage of them. This is not about the train seat. Your new seat was probably just as comfortable as your original one. This is about nice people like you getting pushed around by people who don’t care if their demands cause inconvenience to others. And if that’s the truth, what’s the point of even trying to be nice when you can get things your way being selfish and pushy? If it wasn’t for my liberal arts education, I would have completely given up on trying being more thoughtful of other people. But seminar discussions, casual debates in the dining hall and college in general have taught me that being nice and assertive aren’t worlds apart. There is a middle ground where you don’t have to selfishly push others around and at the same not be a pushover. It’s unfortunate that few people find that middle ground. Most are on either end of the scale. But people are increasingly self-aware now and I have faith that more people like you will find that middle ground. Until then, keep smiling.
Yours Truly,

A distant admirer 
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Dear Susan..

How are you? I hope Indonesia is all that you expected it to be.

In case you don’t remember me, I’m the young college student from Singapore you met in the Rainforest Bakery in Penang last month. The couch across looked cozy and you looked like a warm person. When I came up to your table, I had absolutely no intentions to steal you from your kindle. In fact, I had my own kindle in my bag. I had spent my last few days in Penang sight seeing with my friends, and I felt physically exhausted from walking around in the heat. I was not in the mood to converse, and had come to Rainforest Café looking for some quiet time, only to find opposite. And I’m so grateful for that. Talking to you that afternoon changed the course of my trip.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to hear a story too different from what I’d heard in the past few days from other travelers in the area. But when you told me such astounding stories from your work with victims of domestic violence back in Holland and your recent trip to Burma, I felt refreshed. For a few moments, I felt like I was living your life through your stories, and learning from your past.

Inspired by our conversation, I decided to spend my next three days in Penang in search of more conversation. I wandered around the streets of Georgetown’s Heritage city the next day by myself. Even though I had walked these streets before, I saw things I hadn’t noticed before, and I smiled at people more often. Sometimes I’d just wave at them, and sometimes I’d stop to talk to them. Every local and every tourist I met was very different from anyone I knew, and everyone had something new to say. As I learnt about Penang and Malaysia from the locals, I learnt about other parts of the world from other tourists in the area. I realized that although it isn’t possible for me to go every place I want to go, it is possible for me to hear from people who’ve been to these places.

So Susan, I thank you for teaching this young traveler that travelling is never really about seeing monuments and museums. Rather it’s about the people, who can take you miles away from where you are and show you so much more than your eyes can ever see.

Dear Malay Girl..

How was your day at the beach today? Did you meet anyone interesting?
I hope you haven’t been bothering your old mother too much with your child-like pranks. I could see that she was very upset about the fake snake you’d keep throwing at her in the ferry the other day. Sometimes, my younger brother and I troubled our mother like that too. I guess some things never get old, no matter how old you get. I was surprised to discover that you were 18 years old, not because that’s too old an age to play pranks, but just because you look so much older! I guess another thing that misleads me into believing you were older was that you were working at the food shacks. I meant to ask, do you like working? It must be nice to work with your family, and to also live with your parents, cousins, uncles and aunts in one building. But you seemed so excited at sunset the other day to be going home, that I wondered if you’d rather spend your day doing other things.
Oh and thank you for letting my friends and me ride with you and your family on your ferry. If it wasn’t for you guys, we might have had to spend the night with the monkeys at the beach! It gave us an excuse to get to know more about your life. And we got to see the fishing village near your home too, which was an amazing experience for us city people.  
Anyways, I just wanted to tell you what a fabulous and optimistic person you are, and that it was a real pleasure to meet you! You are one of those few people I’ve met who are happy with their lives, and if more people were like you, the world would be so much more content.  If I ever come to Penang, I’ll visit you at Monkey Beach. This time, maybe you could talk to me. If nothing else, I’d love to know your name.