Hospitable Strangers

Garance Choko and Christopher Chavez

In May 2015, Garance Choko and Christopher Chavez participated in the BLK SHP Bus Tour. They entered and exited multiple and diverse communities across the South and East of the United States, usually spending no longer than a day in each location. Upon their return to NYC, they shared their personal reflections and analyzed their learnings not only about the country, but about themselves. Their shared question: how does one emotionally and intellectually adapt to being thrown into multiple unknowns in a very short amount of time?

Below is their two-voice, slightly edited improvisation on the theme of strangers and hospitality.

Chris (C): Garance, this is fun! Let’s jump into it. You mentioned that the archetype of stranger stood out for you on the BLK SHP bus tour. Can you clarify what you mean by stranger in this context?

Garance (G): In this context, a stranger is someone who I have never met in person before, or maybe just had one interaction with prior to that day. A stranger may have some assumptions about who I am according to socially constructed indicators but they don’t know my personal narrative, and I don’t know theirs. So a stranger is someone with whom the first interaction carries a vast number of possibilities. We are both allowed to re-invent ourselves, for that very short window of time, during that first interaction. What’s fascinating is that with a stranger, I have the opportunity to perform the best or the worst version of myself.

C: Why is the choice between the best and the worst version of yourself? Please explain.

G: It’s interesting. I actually don’t know why I framed it that way. It came out quite spontaneously so let’s explore. When meeting someone for the first time, while you don’t know their personal history, you may attach to them a set of assumptions based on history, politics, past experiences and cultural context. So it might be more accurate to say that upon meeting a stranger, you are confronting your own bias and imagined identity of someone, rather than to the complete unknown.

At this point of my life, and in the context of a first encounter, the best version of myself would be as the Garance who embodies sincere curiosity and hopes for candid resonance. In contrast, my worst first interaction persona, would be when assumptions and discomfort take precedent and I react by embodying dominance, impatience and cynicism. Environments that I associate with past personal or collective traumas can trigger these “negative” traits. But let’s not be reductive and Manichean. Given our current society’s power dynamics, most formal situations impose a social code that requires performing detachment and arrogance as the deplorable but sometime only strategy to establish mutual respect or to set boundaries. At the same time, showcasing the most grounded version of yourself at all time sounds like a noble ideal but can also be disingenuous, and unauthentic, especially given today’s racial and economic tensions.

Speaking candidly, I am more likely to be open and genuine interacting with people with whom I share common perspectives, interests, roots or cultural codes, than communities that have a history of racism and structural discrimination. If I was to meet someone in that context, it would be inauthentic, repressed and naive to start a first encounter with a completely open heart.

G: What triggers you to act circumspect when meeting a stranger?

C: Two things come to mind. 1. Unpredictable behavior in a predictable context. 2. Predictable behavior in an unpredictable context. I guess the trigger for circumspect behavior on my part is some kind of disconnect between my experience of social behaviors and my experience of a social situation or material reality. Most of the time, I meet strangers in unpredictable situations when they are displaying unpredictable behaviors. You could say we all do this to varying degrees. That said, because this is my starting mindset, I normally warm up to people pretty quickly.

C: Do you see a place for strangers in the American Dream?
A metallic Vincent Van Gogh in the Russell Industrial Center. Photo by Christopher Chavez.

G: The American dream is based on the concept of strangers: the conquest of the unknown, the sudden opportunity that comes from nowhere, that is unexpected, that can be brought about via a stranger. There is the stranger as one self: the reinvention of oneself, and the constant reacquainting to oneself as we evolve through unexpected circumstances. Then there is the other as stranger, and the possibilities that they carry. Today, this intention fuels our obsession with networking… the next person might carry the golden key to your success.

C: Your comment makes me think of the digitization // commodification of strangers in online networks. Think of the promise of social networks and dating sites to help find and capture the golden key you mention. It reminds me of an Ancient Greek myth involving Zeus. The Ancient Greeks were taught to not turn away a stranger in case they ended up turning away a god in disguise. In this case, the stranger could hold the golden key or golden dagger! For you, what are the positives and negatives of how this mindset has morphed today? Do you think the positives of this kind of interaction outweigh the negatives?

G: Dating sites and networking allow for curated first encounters. Online, the process seems to be: explore, select, engage, repeat, and only then is “niceness” infused within the exchange. This is the opposite of candid and spontaneous, since it’s based on self-promotion, seduction to get to a specific outcome, and expressed in a controlled environment.

Regarding the commodification of strangers, I think that I would like to reframe it as the commodification of the fantasy that we may attach to that “golden” stranger. What’s commodified is the experience of discovering someone new, in a safe and controlled environment. Spontaneity or “genuine spark” deriving from this fabricated context is supposed to be the golden key, which is completely paradoxical.

This dating, networking western narrative is based on the self and the ego, and some may say that it is a very solitary and narcissistic experience. You network based on your self evaluated worth and how it compares to others. Dating is very similar. It doesn’t leave much room for the unexpected and diversity.

It’s quite pessimistic to infer that in the West, we respect strangers because of self-advancement. In the context of my experience on the bus, it seemed like we were arriving into localities where people were expecting us, and believed that we would provide them with some type of opportunities, of visibility, advice, connection, or just being actors in our “fascinating” experience. I wonder if these local communities would have been as hospitable if we had visited spontaneously, without shepherds. I think that we would have been more able to assess if people were genuinely hospitable if we had just randomly entered local people’s lives.

The English translation of North Carolina’s motto Esse quam videri. Hanging in the Raleigh Denim Workshop in Raleigh, NC.

G: You mentioned a nice concept last time we went for dinner. You talked about the fact that you recognize people and you expect them to recognize you as well…. can you share the indicators of this recognition? Is it a feeling? Please describe. I love the concept of friends at first sight.

C: These days, I’ve had the good fortune of bumping into and recognizing fellow travelers in a shared tribe. Indicators revolve around concepts of authenticity and vulnerability. I find myself inspired by humor filled people — humorous, humble, humanitarians. These people are humus lovers or earth lovers. In many ways, I go through a process of self-recognition and self-striving within my own person when I recognize or am inspired by these traits in others. I think when two people are experiencing this at the same time, strong bonds of empathy form and a sense of pure curiosity — curiosity that goes beyond categorization or a desire for ultimate understanding — becomes the foundation of the relationship. In practice, this leads to relationships built around a sappy, warm and fuzzy version of the scientific method: a questioning to search for answers that lead to better questions.

G: Hospitality is a theme that we noticed. Do you think strangers play a role in a hospitable society?

C: It’s interesting because you can be hospitable to friends and family, meaning people don’t have to be strangers for you to display some sense of hospitality. Actually that might be the interesting question: how do codes of hospitality differ when offered to a stranger as opposed to a familiar person?

Hospitality is from a Latin word meaning “friendliness to guests.” I think we can be hospitable to friends and family and that many different types of people can take the role of strange guest in our lives. I think the challenge with friends and family is to acknowledge that we will always be strangers to one another and to let that acknowledgment shine through so we can host our true selves in any given moment and not be distracted by our assumptions of who the other person is, whether we have known them for 20 years or 20 minutes.

G: Who was your worst host during the tour and why?

C: Truck stops were horrible hosts. They provided the bare minimum and nothing more. After visiting so many inspiring public projects and spaces, I wonder what can be done to introduce a bit of creative soul alongside of interstate highways dotted with the familiar collections of fast food and general stores. The truck stop simultaneously has a lauded and despised position in American culture. It’s a common cultural experience because of our shared love of cars and the open road. The amount of people flowing through these space is huge. And, for this reason, we tend to romanticize their grittiness. But, I found the experience to be so small. Workers are for the most part uninterested. Places are not engaging. It’s like they are built with a “I give up” mentality to providing anything meaningful to weary travelers. This is an opportunity for true hospitality and a positive embrace of the stranger.

C: What do you think?

G: I remember a truck stop in Alabama where people could shower. They would call your name via speakers “ Peter James, shower number 7” and in the bathroom, they had these rough soaps to clean the car oils and other stuff out of your hands.. it was quite interesting because they had this soap in women’s bathrooms which challenged the assumption of gender bias: men and women were equally expected to play with cars. Even though the truck stops were impersonal, there was as sense of intimacy as a result of this mention of bodies. As a complete outsider, I felt that there was some warmth in these truck stops since these places were occupied by people who share similar lifestyles with insider codes and protocols.

G: Can discomfort and shared unknowns increase the quality of social interactions among strangers?

C: My left brain is enthusiastically raising its hand for this one. There are studies confirming what cultures have known for millennia, namely, that shared unknowns, unpredictability, discomfort, malaise, can jump start trust among strangers, especially when incentives align, ie: everyone has a desire to survive, move ahead, overcome. And, not only trust. Discomfort and shared unknowns can also spark ritual, ceremony, ways to imagineer stability and safety into our reality to better cope with situations and elements that are out of our control.

G: What were the different codes of hospitality across the states you visited?

Tulips on an Amish Homestead. Photo by Christopher Chavez.

C: Having spent time living and traveling abroad, I tend to experience a general American version of hospitality. We have a kind acceptance about us that has an aversion to delving too deeply into the personal lives of others unless there’s a good excuse to do so. Though we are a culture of “I” and “me,” we speak in terms of “we,” generalizing individually held views // aligning them to the majority opinion. I’m actually doing it right now — ha! On the trip, there were subtle differences between small town America, post industrial America, and alternative America. With the caveat that I’m making off the cuff distinctions, I will accept my role of traveling outsider and share some observations. In particular, I’d like to highlight the Amish family we visited as an example of an alternative American code of hospitality. It was the closest un-shepherded experience I had while on the bus.

C: Will have to finish this later!!! Getting called to dinner.

G: CONTINUE!!!!! I am digging this ☺

C continued: The day and night we spent on the Amish homestead was originally planned as a day-off. An opportunity arose to connect with the Amish community through a generous friend of Patrick Bresnan’s. Patrick arranged for us to spend time on a homestead and share a meal with the hosting family through his friend.

When we arrived — and after a tour of an Anabaptist themed museum — Patrick’s friend brought us to dinner on the homestead. We were given a simple and heartfelt welcome by gracious hosts who had made a delicious and abundant meal for our group. Over coffee, tea, homemade ice-cream and apple pie, the BLK SHP crew asked how the Amish family knew our community liaison who made the connection between our groups.

The family shared they had only met her the day before! I was shocked. I think we were all a bit shocked. The hospitality the Amish family had exhibited was so familiar. It was the kind I would imagined being reserved for a friend of a close friend. It turned out that our contact had reached out to a neighboring family — not so close in actual distance — about hosting us and discovered that they were out of town. However, the family who would have been our original hosts had reached out to this one, passing on the request to share some time and a meal. Our family accepted.

I would have expected such a game of hospitality telephone to dilute the original welcoming spirit or to jumble and confuse all of the participants. No such dilution or confusion occurred. We felt genuinely welcomed. The code of hospitality I experienced was not punctuated by anything elaborate. We didn’t talk about controversial topics or come to any surprising, new, mind-blowing insights or observations. Thinking back, the entire evening reminded me of an evening with old friends complete with in-kitchen break dancing and ping pong (one of our Amish hosts was super competitive). It was pretty ordinary even in its extraordinariness.

Like what you read? Give Christopher Chavez a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.