Conversations with Strangers

Albert was in his 50s, or given Asians’ tendency to look perpetually young, maybe even older.

He sat next to me on the plane, and as I’d gotten very little sleep before my flight (I’d spent the morning running errands and 30 minutes of it  packing), I was in no mood for small talk. I pulled out a book, turned on my ipod and hoped the plane would lull me to sleep.

But Albert was persistent. I can’t remember how the conversation started or what in my “I’m busy” demeanor gave him the indication that I welcomed conversation, but almost instantly the questions began. And they didn’t stop for much of our 12-hour flight.

He was curious about the dozens of college students on the same flight to Spain and perhaps he could sense my apprehension. At 22, I’d traveled little, as my parents could barely afford to send my siblings and me to college, let alone plan overseas excursions outside of going to the homeland to attend funerals (and for all those trips my mom went solo). I’d held jobs in high school and college, having to rely on those paltry earnings to fund my own excursions (which in college translated to beer, food, gas and more beer).

Though it was my first time alone on a plane, I’d always been independent. My parents didn’t like that. In fact, they discouraged anything I wanted to do that didn’t involve staying home until I was whisked away by a suitor, preferably Filipino, in some respectable profession. They especially couldn’t fathom how their youngest daughter could survive four months in a huge city like Barcelona.

“You have good parents,” Albert told me, “for letting you do this.”

And just like that, he put things in perspective.

When we landed we said our goodbyes, and I watched him disappear into the crowd.

* * *

Though journalism is in a downward spiral, I haven’t regretted pursuing it. Through it, I’ve grown accustomed to talking to strangers and developing an insight into all sorts of people. Albert was different because I didn’t need a story from him, and he actually taught me a thing or two about traveling (Lesson 1: Conversations with strangers en route might actually be quite meaningful).

I’ve applied that to everyday life. I can’t say I make friends with everyone I meet or that I haphazardly go to bars to talk to strangers, but when the situation presents itself I consider it an opportunity to potentially learn from someone. That’s not to say I don’t take necessary precautions or stay aware of my surroundings.

Naturally, it’s drawn some criticism from friends who don’t share the same view. Often they tell me horror stories of kidnappings and murders, with the implication I will meet the same fate unless I bring a weapon or bodyguard. But journalists are always on their own, I tell them. Though they write for news organizations and may be accompanied by a crew, journalists do much of the reporting alone before the cameras roll. It’s probably in their best interests not to venture to war-torn countries, but how else will these stories get told?

I haven’t been anywhere close to that kind of danger, but I’ve gone to strangers’ houses, been verbally threatened, taken rides with sources and have driven through desolate country roads to even more desolate spots past midnight with only a map in hand, vague directions and no phone service.

I’ve survived unscathed, I tell them.

“But you’re in New York,” they say, as if all the crazy people in the world congregated in this city and nowhere else (though city crime rankings seem to think it’s pretty safe here). They think of the crack epidemic that plagued New York in years past, not the current gentrified  Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that have displaced the very people who are actually from New York.

I find it funny that my encounters are met with such cynicism amid our culture of oversharing on Facebook and the heyday of Craigslist, with people willing to live with total strangers. I stand by my belief that crazy things happen everywhere, whether you’re in New York or in a small unheard of town.

Sure, I can choose to hide in my illusion of safety and keep a closed off, cynical view of the world, never allowing myself to experience anything I can’t directly control. Or I can be smart about things and still revel in the unknown.

I choose to be the latter.

16 responses to “Conversations with Strangers”

  1. Albert sounds like the most prolific predator of all-time.

    1. Galloway, you’re fired.

  2. haha @ the above comment. but seriously, i just wanted to say it’s really commendable of you to go off on your own and pursue a career you love in a big city. i’m from nyc (i actually got to your site through your sister.. i’ve kind of known her for years internet-wise) and even i don’t think i can just up and move somewhere on my own like that, much less feel comfortable talking to strangers — so you’re right, it doesn’t have anything to do with being from this city, haha.

    1. Hi Cin,

      Your name sounds really familiar! Thanks for the encouragement. I do think your surroundings shape you, but a lot of it is also a state of mind. When I first started getting involved in newspaper in college, and especially at my first internship at a daily, I was extremely nervous about calling and going up to complete strangers. I found other reporters shared that fear. Still, after a lot of practice, it all became part of the job and was even applicable to everyday life. I don’t think the world is all rainbows and sunshine — there definitely are a lot of creeps out there — but I wouldn’t dismiss the human race as a whole because of it.

  3. golden 3rd!

    1. Brenner, you should start a blog of all your funny e-mails.

  4. I love this post. Like *this much*.

    Whenever my mom warns me of the dangers of going here or going there, I tell her, “Mom, that could happen in our own house. I’ll be ok.”

    Being adventurous & smart is the way to go. You’re such an inspiration, Karen!

    1. Oh man, I know what you mean. I think it’s just the way society (or should I say certain cultures) look at women. We’re just *so* fragile and unable to take care of ourselves. Whatever. I think we’re capable of ruling the world.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you!

  5. Great, insightful post, Karen. I totally relate–not so much in regards to my own family, but to others. I got the strangest responses from people when I told them I was going to the UK to explore for 3 weeks–yes, by myself; no, I didn’t know anyone; no, I had no itemized itinerary. The overwhelming response was that I was “brave”, which was strange bcs I felt no sense of bravery–I wanted to go, I had the means, so I went. And it was awesome and I’d travel by myself again in a heartbeat. I think I’ve always recognized that similar spirit in you, even when we were younger. Some day, when I’m actually home, I’m going to piggy back on one of your blog adventures…(you know, completely ruining your independent experience. lol).

    1. My first reaction when I heard you were going alone was, “That’s awesome!” along with a tinge of jealousy. I’ve often been asked myself if I’d travel overseas alone. I always say I’d really like to (and am planning to), and of course I get that puzzled look you got and some halfhearted comment about being brave. Which somehow doesn’t sound like a compliment at all. But really, I think a lot of it is American culture. People are afraid to even eat alone or see a movie alone for fear of looking like a loser. In study abroad, I found that people from other countries didn’t really give it a second thought and often commented that Americans don’t travel abroad enough.

      You should totally come to a blog adventure! Friends make funny narratives, and you’re definitely funny.

      1. Have you been to the Brooklyn Flea? I want to go. Maybe when it’s warmer. OR, maybe when it’s still cold and again when it’s warmer, for a comparison! lol.

    2. I haven’t been yet, but Phil and I are supposed to go Sunday! Wanna come?? It’s indoors in the winter, and the building is pretty cool.

  6. Well this was an enjoyable read. After taking some time to observe what’s emphasized in the media today, you might be surprised to see how much fear is instilled in things as simple as the daily news. Don’t get me wrong though. It’s good to keep up with what’s going on, but some things are simply just blown way out of proportion. Good read! 🙂

    1. That’s why we should read a variety of things rather than rely on one news source. It helps us get a slightly more diverse set of influences. I do agree a lot of things get sensationalized (Hi, Tiger Woods), and that’s when we just have to click on something else.

  7. […] regardless of what I ended up doing in New York, I was going to write about it. It all came down to what drew me to journalism in the first place. But at 24, I didn’t quite have the life experience that made for […]

  8. […] most part such pleasantries have the potential to evolve into something interesting. There was the businessman passing on his parental wisdom on a flight to Spain. There was the young art dealer, who, while not […]

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