Recently I read some articles about how we as 21st century westerners are communicating more than ever before and yet have never been so disconnected. We do funny things like barge into people on the street, because we've been absorbed by our little mobile screen while sending a text. (In fact a lady would have quite possibly bumped me off the path today, if I hadn't kind of stepped off the path and stopped, waiting for the collision!) I personally find it bizarre when I see a couple at a cafe texting rather than giving their 100% to the very person in front of them. Or is it the homeless man that sits in the concourse next to our train station with whom we try to avoid eye contact? Perhaps we're too eager to avoid people who require effort and time and inconvenience?
Everyone has a story
The other day, I had a chat with a homeless man in the city. I'll call him Ed. Ed told me how he had been on the street for about three years now, with little to show for it. In fact he hardly had a second pair of clothes. As I looked at the overcast sky and then back to Ed, I figured that Ed was probably feeling the bite of the wildhorse of a wind that was rushing around us. He freely told me about how he had left his wife or partner due to various issues that she was not willing to deal with. I sensed that he was sad about the path his partner had refused to back out of, a life of prostitution and drugs. But Ed also gave an insight into how he viewed society: "You have independence, but I have freedom." Ed explained, weakly grinning, that thinking this was how he kept putting one foot in front of the other. But he did raise a good point about how you can have independence from parents, for example, but may not have freedom from financial troubles and money-obsession. As we were chatting, I really felt like Ed was just another guy, you know? He may look disheveled and dirty, but in the end, a homeless guy is indeed a fellow human. It was good to hang with him, not least because listening to his story was a simple gesture of valorising and connecting with him.
Surprised on the train...
Emboldened by my good chat with Ed and culture-watch articles, when I sat down for the train back home, I was looking for any natural conversation opportunities that might come my way. I looked to my left. Nope, a lady had already plugged in her earphones and was absorbed by the device on her lap. I looked at the empty seat to my right. Soon enough, it was filled by a large, full-bearded man. I took the plunge. "G'day, I'm Mark." And a conversation began. You never know about the people you board buses and trains, and this guy was no exception. I was surprised when I discovered after a bit of to-and-fro that Garry was working for an engineering company that I was semi-interested in applying at. Later, I mentioned my convo with Ed, including his point about freedom and money. Garry nodded when I reflected that money can be a pretty ordinary boss. Yeah, you can be a slave of the dollar, that's for sure. And before we knew it, it was our station. Garry agreed to let me use his name in my application letter to his company's HR.
At the very least, our conversation had made our otherwise painfully silent train carriage just a little bit friendlier. I could see a smile on another passenger's face as she caught snippets of our little chat. I think it's safe to say that Perth public transport is very different from public transport in Zimbabwe. A friend from 'Zim' tells me that, back home, ticket inspectors will ask, "what's wrong with you?" if you're sitting with others and are not talking! Maybe we westerners can learn something from Zimbabweans.