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Azazello
October 17th, 2005, 01:04 AM
I was doing some web searching (on this, Shanghai Living (http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/007227.php#trackbacks)), and came across this essay (http://www.shanghaiexpat.com/Article1103570.phtml). It talks about one aspect of being an expatriate, but it really applies to anyone who's living in a large city.

Be a bit patient while reading this; English is not the first language of the writer. Even so, I think the sentiments are very touching, and relevant to us all.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005
By Nora M Lee

Earlier that day, I was meeting friends in the Starbucks across the Parkison Plaza. During the meeting, a girl sitting steps across called my attention; she’s blonde, shapely-a 20 something, probably. I noticed her not because she’s pretty-if I were to be a peeking Jane, then why should I start as a lesbian-it’s that she kept looking at us, as if it’s the first time she ever heard someone speaking English in public. But until the end of our talk, with my friends leaving one after another, she never came up to butt in a word.

When I was left alone eventually, she looked at me, and I looked at her back-feeling hard to decipher her intention; I then shot her a smile, trying to gesticulate, and she smiled back-wonderful privity. This might be, officially, the start of all conversations between perfect strangers. The girl then approached me, a bashful smile worn on her face; I was wondering how it was like the first time she talked to her boyfriend-if she had one already-or any boy she’d never met before….She’s from Slovenia. Let’s call her Snow (because it symbolizes her favorite season-winter) Snow started by saying that she had problems finding an apartment, because hardly anyone speak English in real estate agencies here in Shanghai; all they did was trying to sell instead of helping out-and she’s so sick of staying in her hotel for any longer. She wanted to live in Shanghai for the next 4 years with her boyfriend, but weeks of home-hunting has ended up in vain, making her a little desperate….I told her that as a local student, I could be of no help. She should have come earlier, ‘cause some of my foreign friends might be helpful with their hands-on experience with the tenancy issues. Snow said she wanted to, but that she had never talked to strangers if not necessary, and was scared…I said I understood….We then had a long and wonderful conversation, as if we were friends of years. I told her a lot about Shanghai, its history during the colonial period of the last century, and its status quo. Snow talked something about Europe, and her home country. Boy, it was a great time. We then exchanged contact information and said “See you”.

When I arrived home later that day, I got an e-mail from Snow-out of surprise. She said she was still in the wake of our “serendipity” and found it unbelievably real about our newly-born friendship. Snow said in a big city like Shanghai, there’s literally no inter-connection between people; no one cared to talk to strangers as if they would bite… and… she was so glad that she met me…. I said that her company had made my day, too. And that I understand her flinch in the first place….

Yes, of course I understand. I understand because I used to be and still am the kind of girl, who NEVER talk to strangers, though I love talking and chatting soooooo much, and I do enjoy making new friends. I used to think that with officially more than 58,000 working and living in Shanghai, mostly English speaking, there must be a ton of colorful backgrounds and interesting stories behind this dynamic group, and it would be so fun to talk with them and to know something different. And who knows, maybe we can hit off well and be friends. However, every time I bought myself a seat in a local café, and every once again when I was circled by a White or a Yellow or a Black, who was also alone, and looked expectantly, all I did was glancing and all I had was “glancing back”.

Why are people in big cities so afraid to talk to each other? Why don’t people trust strangers any more? Are those greeting words and a short self-introduction so hard to mouth? Why don’t we just learn forward and break the ice first instead of waiting for others to take the action?

One interpretation is that to survive in a metropolis like Shanghai is tough; to make enough money for a cozy lifestyle is no longer easy. Hardly could anyone stay patient, enthusiastic or even sane after a day’s struggle and torture; what’s everyone want is a scream at the top of their pitches and a good kick at the sack bag to let out some nervous energy. Another explanation: the very conventional thought of “never talk to strangers unless you want to be fooled”. Indeed, talking to strangers involves too much uncertainty, plus a sea of risks: what if he’s trying to trick you into something, or what if he’s bloody-minded and has laid some conspiracy on you. Or he could be a jerk, a voyeur, and maybe a murderer, or a terrorist wanted by FBI.

Besides, how can we possibly predict the reaction of the people we want to talk to? What if they simply don’t like you or hate to talk to strangers? What if they don’t even care to say a “Hi” back? Or what if they don’t speak English and the language or languages you speak at all…? All these unknown facts can end up in total embarrassment, making you look like a lunatic salesman or maybe …a hooker…

However, the costs of this endless, stupid scrupulosity are that we’re missing the chance of having a really wonderful, inspiring conversation, and the chance to know an amazing spirit. Indeed, we can console our sense of loss or our remorse by inventing more excuses of not talking to strangers, but are these excuses really that convincing or do they really work for us? After all, we still feel sorry for our lack of courage and begin to wish the person we just missed is indeed not worth talking to….

Maybe this is a part of the syndrome called “city-phobia”, people are more and more isolated to each other and have grown more and more reclusive, though ostensibly the whole population is growing and the city is shrinking; people no longer say “hello” to their neighbors, students living on the same floor for 4 years still can’t tell the names of each other, places like elevators, subways, waiting lines are deadly quiet as if in libraries…if this is for the sake of security or the sake of privacy, then what will do to make up for the loss of companionship or the torture of loneliness? Human beings are born gregarious; why do we have to pretend nonchalant to the outside and always leave ourselves helplessly alone? Yes, we’ll never know what others are thinking about, whether they are willing to talk or are simply approachable. But we can make a difference by being spontaneous; we can change people’s attitude by reaching out first, and we can make room for friendship, romance, or maybe our own SERENDIPITY.

I’m glad that I met Snow, because I not only have had a friend, but also, for the first time, did something I only dreamed before. And so far, I know that strangers are just people, to whom you want to but dare not say “Hi”.