I must have a really unkind face.
A friend from awhile ago remarked when he first met me, that I was a scary looking person. I vividly remember one of those inconsequential conversations that people generally don’t remember – that I’d always look angry by default. It even came to a point where he had asked “why are you always angry?”. Befuddled, I say with a childlike urgency “No no no. I’m not angry at all,”. I was genuinely confused. It’s true, I do have one of those pensive gazes where I stare into space, either perpetually despondent or curious. The truth is, my mind is never really at ease, always rushing about for a new concept, idea or curious about why someone decided to sit next to me on the bus. What is their deal anyway? Don’t they know I am a man who revels in solitude?
It’s from innumerable occurrence where people gaze at me with a bit of horror and it’s become a recent development that I’ve come to terms to. It’s true, my face is a little unorthodox, with what I call nature’s tattoos plastered unevenly on my face and it’s not perfect. I even recall the time my mother went to take me to the doctors when I was younger and begged to have it “fixed” or I’ll never get married or find anyone (I was only about 5 or 6 when this happened).
Giving it a lot of thought, I theorised that it is from this phenomena that I vividly remember the strange conversations and connections that occur in my life. I always hear stories of “some stranger talked to me today” and there’s generally a big pay off like a punchline or a cool life story to be taken from these anecdotes. However, these “conversations” don’t really happen to me. I’m a perpetual person repellent. And in a lot of ways, it works to my benefit, and to some, to my detriment. Being that I always get left alone (and quite possibly – a very good thing. My level of passion and frivolity for fantasy and obscurity is not entry-level stuff. If you don’t like people who have the constant urge to sing into the high heavens with disregard of context or time – you’d probably hit the block button and be on your very way. For awhile, I was a bit ashamed at my propensities to be a little eccentric, and in some ways – it still does affect me when people show a bit of disregard. But then comes the old adage of who are you living for?
But I digress, I find that conversations with strangers has become a relic of the past. Which is a shame, because despite my unkind face, I relish these opportunities to reach out to another. Being the socially anxious – I’d never dare to initiate them myself, but there’s something incredibly touching when someone decides instead of listening to that song they’re probably sick of hearing, or waiting for that instagram post that their favourite celebrity posts once and every so while – they decide to start a conversation with a stranger. And you bet I give my darndest attention to cater to ensure they have a listening and empathetic ear!
After a pretty stressful day teaching and woeful public transport – I was forced to sit at a bus stop outside my local shopping centre. There was nobody there apart from a kind looking, mature aged woman who leaned herself on the windows of the bus stop. She looked a little weathered and had been looking at me – and from what I gathered was a gesture that she wanted to start a conversation.
“Bloody buses are always late,”
I can’t exactly remember the words – it was almost a year ago, but I do remember that the ice breaker was some complaint about public transport. She was right though…. The bus I was meant to catch hadn’t arrived for quite some time – I suppose there was that slight possibility that I had just missed it. I nodded my head politely to acknowledge her complaint. I had no interest to repeat her sentiments – since she put it in the best way possible – there was no way I could improve on that.
I struggle with small talk. I long for the day that someone blurts out a controversial issue-based comment or argument and that stimulating conversation that can last for hours could follow. What’s the point of discussing the weather, or if someone has children when you could immerse yourselves in a compelling philosophical discussion or have an exchange of ideas about a hypothetical invention that could change the world? And now reading that comment back – I’m self aware what a pompous idiot I sound (believe me, I do check myself more often than you think).
Being an “ethnic” person – one of the most common forms of “small talk” generally comes across as this. And this is always the starting point of every conversation with meeting anyone new.
Oh so where do you come from?
I was born here
No. But “where” are you from?
I remember this vividly. It always seems to be the entry level conversation starter. There is another form that I’ve confronted – although that is just an aggressive derivative of “Oh, so you must come from China right?” (since every Asian looking person comes from there – and if you had a slight tan and looked a little more “European”, you’d get the “you must be Filipino” equivalent of this comment.
In my younger years (I say this as a 23 year old), I used to resist and get outraged at these statements. So being of Asian descent didn’t qualify me being “of” a western country? Want to guess the irony to this frame of mind? The woman asking this was of Aboriginal background – and when history is concerned – the people who have endured feeling like strangers in their own country for millennia.
My parents are from Asia, but we do have a bit of European in our blood too.
That was my stock standard answer to that question. No outrage, just the facts. She seemed to genuinely be interested about my background, nodding her head and smiling. Care to guess where I’m from?
It’s from here that upon reflection I felt terribly foolish. I hesitated to answer. I don’t know… I said in a restless, downbeat denial. I responded the way I did, because I didn’t want to risk being offensive. There were times where I heard stories about being offended by being presumed of a background that they disliked or were not a part of. Although in my head – and all my instincts I knew that she was Aboriginal – I couldn’t in my heart of hearts wish to offend or hurt people for an assumption – even though she had done quite the same thing to me a few seconds ago.
But what a cruel thing. To assume that someone would not want to be assumed a society or culture of people. There should not be shame of what or who people are – whether it be for themselves or by the people who happen to come across them. Being Asian – self deprecation is second nature – for the greater society such as in entertainment sees us as a punchline to a joke rather than actual people. We are either karate experts, nerds with no lives, the token exotic sexual interest with high maintenance issues (for women), or the castrated, best friends that never get the girl with beta tendencies and lack western masculinity or emotions (if you’re a guy). We aren’t real people in the eyes of others and will always be the last resort scapegoats since other ethnicities are quite fervid with discrimination against their people.
I’m Aboriginal. She said with a smirk. I guess it’s hard cause you don’t really see many of us around.
I knew she looked for a smile, but there was something tragic about that statement. I mustered a small smile, but the reality of it cut through like a dagger. Although comedy with a bite was always a favourite of mine.
Our conversation then ventured onto how we came to this spot. I had told her I had a really stressful day of teaching – to which she gave me quite comedic advice about trying to settle kids down. Ask anyone who is mature-aged and they’ll always tell you that we need to bring corporal punishment back and how kids can’t truly learn in a politically correct world. But one thing that stuck with me was that she commented that I was pure hearted soul. The comment came quite abruptly and it was something that I had regularly received from strangers. I had even been asked if I went to church from someone that wanted me to donate to charity – although that’s a story for another day.
I’m waiting to go to the hospital because I’ve got cancer. So the bus better bloody come soon she joked.
I was speechless. My thoughts immediately rang to concern. Was it serious? Why didn’t she call a taxi?
I’m sorry. That must be rough… I said, I couldn’t help but feel really sad. A kind stranger had talked to me at a moment where I would be left alone… she reached out to me for a brief moment but carried such pain with her.
It’s okay. I’m not afraid of dying. And I’m not afraid of talking about it either. I like talking as you’ve probably realised, she joked again.
I wanted to trust her words, but I still saw fear in her eyes. I couldn’t fault her – I’d be scared too if I was in her position. But it was a conversation that stuck with me. How someone could possess such strength to smile and be so lively with their lives uncertain and haunted by something that potentially could take everything away from them. See, I can see you’ve got a pure heart she abruptly said as I was lost for words.
You don’t even know me, but you’re worried for me. You’d be a great teacher. You got the heart for stuff like that. That’s rare in this day and age.
It’s probably the nicest thing a stranger ever said to me. In my head – I said a mental prayer to hope that she safe when her bus had arrived. In truth, my bus had actually arrived before hers – but I stayed at the bus stop longer to keep her company and to ensure that she was okay.
I keep memories like these – because sometimes I really like to think that there’s meaning in everything we become a part of. Whether that be you see love hearts everywhere you go, or you find out you have a strange connection to a complete stranger, it’s all got to mean something right? And maybe it’s from the weight that we carry from these memories – that we all become what we need to be.