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.