Don’t Talk to Strangers on a Midnight Metro

(Originally posted on heatherli.wordpress.com)

Or, you may give it a try.

Growing up, I was repeatedly told not to talk to strangers.

I’ve read the stories. Similarly sharing an innocent start, a young girl on the way home alone. As simple as that, I’m certain that an image has already been generated in your mind. And you could easily guess what would happen next.

I’ve always been a good girl. My heartbeats would rise when I walked pass individuals with a “suspicious” look according to the world’s standards, and rarely got home late at night. I’ve generally avoided unnecessary interactions with strangers in the public and have made it safe for the first 16 years of my life very successfully, following almost every single rule from the universally-agreed social norms.

So one of the most important discovery for myself when I first decided to come to another culture, is the endless possibilities that could be unreleased once I’ve let go of the bondage to the social norms, and how much more colorful that world could come to be.

“After years of attempting, failing and succeeding to fit in with the mainstream world, I finally came to realization that there’s simply a better option: it’s okay to stand out.”

Once I learned to embrace all different situations as the way they are, I discovered that some of my most enjoyable moments actually come from the “strangeness” in life, rather than what’s often referred as the “normal things to do”. Among everything, what I’ve found myself enjoy the most are, actually, the awkwardness, the unexpectedness, and the unbelievable fun of random conversations when first encountering strangers. As an international living overseas, I’m fortunate enough to have plenty of opportunities.

“Let’s be honest, ‘I learned to be afraid of black men before I’ve ever met one.’”

Yep, I said it. And it’s true.

And that’s why when a middle-aged African American man approached me when I was on the metro ride back alone last night from my very first Cuban-Afro dance class(which was offered at DancePlace, a totally cool place to check out and one of my new favorite spots in DC), it would be a lie for me to deny that there wasn’t a slice of fear that went through my mind. And for the first 1/1000 second when I looked up at him, all the possible terrible things that could happen to me from years of absorbing crime scenes in western media and messages through words of mouth flashed through my mind, even I was born and raised in a totally different culture, where black people simply don’t inheritablly share a presence.

I saw him earlier when I was waiting for the metro, reading a copy of Daily Bread a friend has just sent me. I definitely detected the attention from him when I sat down. He was carrying two big black bags filled with stuff. He was talking to himself about something that I could not recognize.

He’s probably a homeless man, I though to myself. Several months into life in DC, I’m already used to overhearing people on the street ranting passionately about something under unsatisfactory with the world we live in.

Well, apparently he followed me onto the same train and chose to right in front of me. I stayed alert, feeling the invasion of personal space in public. He was still talking to himself rather passionately, some comments on another passenger on the train that I wouldn’t repeat.

Judging by the space between us, I knew he’s going to turn around next and talk to me. And he did.

“You know, the europeans tell you Asian people that blacks are going to steal from you, rob you, we are bad people and we are dumb. We are n* n* n*.” He looked at me and said, raising up his voice.

I spotted that now the very few passengers on board started to look this way, some concerned and some disturbed. It was a quiet train after all. A Caucasian girl looked down immediately at her phone screen at the and put in ear plugs. Another black girl who was sitting close walked away.

I looked back at him in the eyes. For some reason, I knew instantly that he’s not just a crazy guy on the street out of his mind. He knows what he’s talking about. I thought to myself. And I’m indeed very intrigued to know what he’s about to say.

I smiled a little and leaned forward, partially to show the interest and partially to hide the guilt I felt for my instinct reaction. I realized almost immediately how terribly an effect racism has been deeply planted in my life even when I’m not aware of it. Maybe he just need an listener.

I still didn’t say anything. I wonder if he would think that I don’t speak any English.

He didn’t seem to think that way. But he did soften his voice. “You know, I grew up in a middle-class family in Virginia Beach.” Not sure if he intended to ease my natural defense towards strangers and build the trust, but it worked. He’s probably used to and good at public speaking.

He went on more passionately talking about how the term Africa was not its real name and actually came from a Roman General, meaning “the motherland”;and how the treasures and wisdom originated in the great kingdom of Ethiopia, were brought on boats by Europeans to the rest of the world. He talked about Africans being the first ones to come up with great methods in calculus and science that has exceeded Asia for hundreds of years (referring to blacks at bad at math). He talked so much more and I did wish that my English could be better, so I could document as clearly as the way he said it, but I’ve tried my best.

(I often find myself lost half-way in the conversations when it goes into facts, and start to more emotionally relate to people’s message than actually decode the content word by word.)

I could just see from the sparkles in his eyes that everything he talked about came from years of learning and observation. And as rawly as the way he put it, I knew there’s so much truth in there, and he simply held knowledge of things that I had never heard about, and still rarely recognized in public, (even with the rising popularity in media and public forum to discuss about racial relations).

(I caught myself thinking, how many more people holding just as much brightness and talents, yet having to live under prejudice from the society? How many times they have to distract their energy in anger, feeling the need to explain themselves over and over again, when others live rather comfortably holding onto the privilege they were entitled with from birth? All of that is simply because we are so quick to pass on judgement based on appearances and stereotypes? And this certainly apply for any sort of majority-minority relations in the society.)

At this moment I’ve decided to put off my defense. I couldn’t appreciate more of what a great cultural education he was giving me.

“Wow I have no idea about all of these, thank you so much!”I finally spoke out. “And I totally agree with you. We are all from Africa after all, haha.”

With my laughter, he’s no longer an angry African American stranger to me. I pretty much felt like I was talking with a friend now. I bet he did too.

Soon it eased into a conversation. “Where are you from?”, he asked me. A standard question that I’ve expected to be asked in most social situations ever since living overseas. And just as usual, I answered with take a guess.

“Go with the easiest way. “I giggled and hinted.

He studied my face thoroughly. “Korean? Japanese?” He went, trying to find a clue from my bone structure.

Also a common thing that I’ve heard too many times. See, when you tell people to go with the easiest way, they took the furthest path. Americans have projected to be afraid of saying it, you are Chinese, aren’t you? (After all, we accounted for 1/5 of the world’s populations!)

I often appreciate the etiquette in avoiding being political incorrect. (But in my case, your assumption is right. And I’m very proud to be.)

“Haha, I’m 100% Chinese. You should’ve guessed it first.”I said.

“I would have never guessed that.” He laughed. And even though I’m still unsure about what that means, I laughed with him.

He took out an envelope and started writing down everything that he has just told me, books to refer to and people to watch out for. It was one of the greatest and the most genuine gestures that I’ve encountered in DC so far. I knew that I was getting a great gift that I would very much love to treasure. I watched him writing down things, and it felt great.

It’s been a pleasant conversation with intelligence and humanity that meant so much to me, living in a city constantly surrounded with people wearing suits and ties. This is one of those moments that reminds me the reason I’ve always wanted to be in DC, a place where I’m constantly inspired and feel comfortable to talk about race and social issues.

He assumed that I didn’t understand the experience of a black man living in America. But I can still relate from my own experience.

“Being an international, I know well about the struggles and frustrations of feeling marginalized from the society. I know well about what it means to feel silenced and misunderstood, and the fears of judgement and rejections when I hold no other intentions rather than starting genuine conversations and building potential friendships. Unprepared in stepping into the adult world, I’ve learned that building trust is never easy.”

Even though I thought that I had been consciously trying to dig deeper into the issues related with racism, even though I’ve been holding pride of my determination in educating myself into an well-informed and open-minded global citizen, yet I did fail to pass his test, at least for the first 1/1000 second.

Because I’m also well aware of the privileges I hold, as a young Asian female with a relatively harmless look, who are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study abroad in college and experience a young professional life in DC. I’ve been embraced and loved by strangers with open arms just as much as, if not more, than I’ve been rejected and hurt.

Coming from a middle-class suburban family (still not sure what that truly means)back home, I’ve just started to becoming more thankful each day for the trials and challenges God put in my path, for they helped me relate with people that I may have otherwise never been able to relate to. (And often times, I found myself able to quickly switch my perspectives and relate with people from both sides.)

“See, one of the best gifts I’ve received from living overseas, is my overly-extended and maximized ability in empathy. I’ve found myself able to engage in conversations with people personally across nationality, culture, gender and social status without fear of restrictions from certain expectations. For me, it has minimized the complications of standardized social interactions within a singular culture and release it to the most genuine exposure and exchange of real personal experience and raw thinking process.”

(The way to come into the realization for me was definitely not easy, for I’ve spent too much time criticizing the way I understand and interact with the outside world, simply failing to embrace the beauty and uniqueness of my own experience and perspective. And trust me, I’ve judged myself harshly before anyone else.)

Mostly importantly, living overseas has helped me to understand better about Jesus, the most absolute uncriticizable, righteous man’s journey on earth.

When he came into the world, he was not accepted by people neither. And he endured the unbelievable hardships and rejections from people’s treatments, from the same people he came to love. And still, he was able to pour out of God’s love with his life. And among it all, he chose to befriend with the sinners, the pour, the outcasts and the unaccepted.

“Africans wrote the bible, you know. And Jesus is brown-skinned,”He said as he passed that envelope to me.”And I’m gonna take one step further.”

He winked, taking back the envelope and quickly jotted down his number for me.

I laughed. My stop was here sooner than I expected.

“I’m getting off here now. But It’s truly been a great pleasure to meet you.”I said, genuinely feeling very honored and inspired.

He asked my name with a smile and waved me Goodbye as I walked out of the train. “God bless you.” The last words he said.

“Lots more research to do tonight.”I thought joyfully to myself as I stepped down the train and hold that envelop preciously on my way home. What a great evening.

I know that I might never be able to fully understand everything. But all I can do is to keep learning and stay unrestricted from what I’ve already learned.

I pray to have courage to never be afraid of starting an open-ended conversation, and embracing the unexpectedness of life. Living in a city surrounding with countless strangers that I now see as opportunities for starting potential amazing conversations with, I laughed at myself for once being so afraid of speaking to strangers.

(Besides Humans of New York, I also found Person First Project a inspiring resource for personal narratives specifically about homelessness in DC.)

I know that sometimes I may confuse people and I have confused myself. But finally, I found the perfect explanation for all my crazy little ideas coming out of nowhere and me being unconsciously looking for opportunities to be uncomfortable: you know, for a writer, all the awkwardness, weirdness, strangeness that normal people have tried to avoid for life, simply make the best stories to write. And suddenly, everything makes sense to me.

I know that I’m not on an 100% safe path and I may never be able to lead a normal life. But this is the sacrifice I’m willing to make in my indefinite search for true humanity in this world. And besides, I know that God is always watching over me.

“And I just found myself praying hard that night, that please, and God forbid, if there’s anything undesirable that will ever happen to me, please don’t let it done by a black brother.”

(And don’t worry. I’ll still be polishing my self-defense skills and making responsible decisions at the same time.)