Being an airplane insomniac, confirmed by the irrefutable experience of hundreds of wakeful flights, I reveled in the promise of two empty seats beside me. Perhaps, despite my dreadful condition, in my desperation I could stretch out and get some much-needed rest. I was dejected when my reverie of rest ended with a small woman tapping me on the shoulder and indicating that the seat by the window was hers. Traveling forces you to adjust, and so I do. At least I am on the aisle and there is a seat between us. I cherish the gift of space, breathing room. I make myself grateful for lesser graces – after all, it’s clear from my observation that everyone else has to contend with three-up in a row, jockeying elbows with neighbors for room on the armrest. Thankful, I eased into my seat as the flow of bypassing passengers petered out. Smaller mercies, grateful heart. Until, that is, I feel a tapping on me from behind.
And there he is, MY elbow wrestler and unwelcome space-depriver – small mercies denied. “My wife,” he says, “didn’t stop me. She let me go by.” I say (to myself), “I wish I, too, could make you go by. But, here you are, and I am not about to pretend how happy I am that you’re going to be filling this space beside me.” I am so peeved by his presence, which, perhaps even literally, robs me of my dreams, that I feel disingenuous about being civil. So, I dispense with the common courtesies and ignore him, immersing myself into the book I brought along for the trip, David Greene’s, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Siberia. I feel my irritation rise when he leans over, happily greets me, and asks how my day is going. You know the feeling, prompted by the question he just pressed upon me, that results from his query: “Am I going to be a jerk and dismiss him rudely, or, will I participate in a phony pretense that I’m pleased to cooperate in a social display of good manners.” In my brooding over the response I should make, I recall that just a few chapters back, David Greene grappled with the challenge it was for he and Rosa (his wife) to feel welcomed in Russia. Here’s how he puts it:
It’s the first thing international visitors notice. The streets are filled with nervous, blank stares. In public, many Russians don’t seem to acknowledge that other humans are sharing their space. They are indifferent, if say, you want to squeeze past on a crowded sidewalk. They avoid eye contact as if they might get a disease from it. (A not unrelated point: Russians who visit the United States are equally perplexed by Americans and their obsession with smiling at people they’ve never met.)
A couple years ago when Ursula and I visited Russia, we, too, were aghast at the apparent unfriendliness of the Russian people, and the strangeness of the Cyrillic signs that left us no clue about what we were seeing. No one seemed to want to help, no one even looked, or, they deliberately avoided engagement with us. We struck it off our list of countries that we would like to return to someday, and we vowed to try to be more friendly and helpful to strangers.
Sitting there, book in hand and memories in mind, I did what I knew I needed to do. “It’s been a long day,” I said. “I feel so tired.” I added, now that I had slipped into the courtesy-friendliness thing, “And, how about yours?” He told he was literally coming from just down the road in Singapore. He was with a group, all wearing T-shirts, who were the Society of Orchid Lovers in Singapore ... so that was the happy lavender stream that sauntered by me. They were going to Chiang Mai (to visit some orchid farms) and then embarking on a trek into the surrounding countryside mountains to see orchids in the wild.
Well, now that we were into it, I threw reserve to the wind and told him about a book I read about a decade ago by Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. I told him about my great surprise to learn that there are so many varieties of orchids (thousands), and, flabbergasted by the passion of orchid lovers for the flower. I asked him about the Phalaenopsis, a striking beauty among the many varieties, and told him that my mother has an amazing ability to grow Cymbidium – they just multiplied phenomenally under her hand, and how I wished that one day, I, too, would be able to grow orchids in such bountiful profusion. “She must have green hands,” he said. OK, forget sleep and privacy, now we’re into humor. So, I say, “She does, and, so do I.” “Our last name is Green,” I tell him, and he chuckles, delighted that some barrier was collapsing.
Then, in an unassuming act, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a roll of candy and hands me the pack to take one. “What are they, I ask?” “Butterscotch” he says. “Singaporean?” I ask. “No, British,” he responds. “I shouldn’t have sweets,” I tell myself. I’ve given up candies other than chocolates decades ago. “But, how can I refuse this authentic gesture of friendship,” I ask myself. Throwing decades of cultivated discipline to the wind, I take a candy. And I am so glad I did. The taste of my childhood comes back – butterscotch drops in glass containers at the Indian store that I yearned for every time we stopped on the way home before crossing the Dorpspruit River. The sweetness of his candy in my mouth washes down my throat, and by his simple gesture I am transported on the river of time, backward, to a different epoch, to a simpler era when everyone was Uncle or Auntie, people were friendly, and the world was a more genial place. Strangers were friends waiting to be discovered, and “different” was only demeaned by the odious laws of a discredited and diabolical system, apartheid. “Thank you,” I say, and I think there’s not time on this flight to tell of the breadth of gratitude and the span of memories his modest gesture had invoked.
We both lean back in our seats. I pick up my book. But, I soon realize his kindness is not yet exhausted. He has brought with him several copies of Singaporean newspapers. “Want to read today’s news?” he says, as he hands me a copy of The Straits Times, which I gladly accept – traveling cross-continentally has a way of making you feel out of touch. Again, I thank him and then my eye falls on the story of a canceled Donald Trump rally in Chicago due to violence. “Different is dangerous.” “Strangers are enemies.” “Acts of kindness are weakness.” “Destroy and demean what is ‘other.’” These are the messages that have led to this violence. Thinking of my Singaporean neighbor and the transformation of our exchange by his innocent kindhearted act of humanity, I lamented that we in the United States seem to be becoming a mean-spirited, hostile, harsh society. I prayed silently in my seat, “Lord, may this callousness endure for no more than an election season. Make us people of generous spirit, filled with grace and kindness, and give us leaders who will lead us in this way.” There was too little time to tell him all that was churning in my heart and soul, the details too complicated to unpack as we were making our descent into the Orchid City. I envied him for the innocent beauty of the blooms he will see in the coming days. I told him I hoped he would see many Phalaenopsis and be nurtured by their striking loveliness, and that someday he would visit our hemisphere and see the Stanhopea, sometimes called Stan for short, into which I pour all my hope that its complicated beauty will someday be embodied in all our human relationships fraught with fear, ferociousness and fighting.