Compassionate Strangers

One of my favorite questions to ask strangers is some form of, what do you love about life?

A week’ish ago I pulled out this question just a few minutes into a conversation with the woman behind me in line for the bus to Albany.

I love asking this same, simple question is because the answers are always varied and often surprising, in the best of ways.

Her answer? It came pretty quick and was quite clear:

People’s ability to care and to show compassion for other people even if they have no relationship with them.

The second reason I love asking this same, simple question is because the conversation then usually heads off into uncharted territory.

This uncharted territory is both for me (which, with a stranger, everything is pretty much uncharted), and – more importantly – for them.

She’s a new teacher in the NYC public school system and she told me about her challenging week.

One major question that confounds her:

How does one balance the need to control the classroom and garner respect from all students, while also knowing that some students who show disrespect to her or to others may know no other way to call out for help?

I don’t feel right sharing some of the details of this story, but one thing that I do feel comfortable sharing that truly blew me away was when she said this:

The worst thing about being a teacher is about encountering parents who don’t care. Parents who will save your number specifically so they won’t pick up when you call because they don’t want to hear about their child.

We talked a bit about experience we had abroad. When she learned I had spent quite some time living in China she immediately wondered aloud, I read something about how Chinese teachers spend a lot of time discussing strategies for classes, much more so than in America. Is this true?

Our conversation extended from the line, through the bus delay, and all the way to Albany. Teaching in New York, China, Cuba, Pakistan, relationships, love, Humans of New York, and more were the topics of the evening.

She told me at one point that she doesn’t usually talk to strangers.

What was it that lead to a stranger conversation that day?

Did she just need someone to talk to?

Was it a conversation that took an unfamiliar twist after a short warm-up of regular chit-chat?

Something else?

Maybe if the result was so excellent for everyone involved, the reason’s not all that important?

Do you think it’s possible to find compassion – and comfort – in an interaction with a stranger?

Maybe you’ve experienced it before?

When was the last time?

What was it like?

10 Minutes with UFO

I rode in Frank’s cab today. Time was going to be tight to make my train. And Frank’s car just happened to be there. Serendipity is a beautiful thing. As was our chat.

When he learned I go by my initials, he laughed while telling me that if he followed suit I should call him, UFO.

Uzoka Frank Okey.

Uzoka. It’s my last name. Sounds Japanese, but it’s from Africa.

Where is that? I asked.

I’m from Nigeria, he happily stated.

Uzoka (pronounced oh z’ahh kuh).
Okey (pronounced ‘okay’).

And people are never saying ‘okey’, the right way. But this name is actually okechukwu (okay chew koo), chuku meaning God.

We’re a very Christian country, Nigeria. Lots of names like this.

Okechukwu, God’s creation.
Ikechukwu (ee’kay chew koo) God’s power.
Obichukwu (obee chew koo), God’s heart as in heart warming.

One of my favorite questions to ask just about anybody is, “What should I know about _____________, if I don’t know anything about it.”

I asked UFO what I should know about Nigeria.

It’s a place with a large population. Used to be ruled by the British. A nice warm pleasant country that mismanages its resources. Oil is quite an important one of these resources. And there’s corruption.

But there’s good food. And good weather. People are friendly and can be very boisterous. Often ingenious, always looking for ways to make things better.

Frank mentioned the civil war in the late 60s between Christians and Muslims. And during that time the Christians (the minority group) built a submarine, with only basic tools, which helped to bring peace to the country.

He was proud about his people – people who take pride in making something special happen, with limited resources, in order to make things better.

There was much more to chat about with UFO, but our time was up. Amazing how much ground you can cover with someone in 10 minutes. We both went on our way with smiles on our faces after a few quality moments of sharing stories.

And it’s also amazing how easy it can be for a couple of strangers to share a warm, positive interaction that can make a world full of unidentified foreign objects – or others – feel just a bit smaller.

What was your last warm, positive interaction with a complete stranger? What did you share? What did you learn? How did you feel when you walked away?

Can’t remember? No worries. I bet you’ll have another chance for one of these conversations soon 😉

“Sustainability”

Over the past few months I’ve had a chance to talk to quite a number of people around New Haven – and beyond – about the topic of “sustainability.”

People sure love to buzz about it.

Sustainability this. Sustainability that.

Both through reading and conversation, it seems like there’s a lot of people out there who seem to feel that “sustainability” is somewhere between a load of BS and something that just can’t really be defined.

But is this any different from anything else that’s hard to define?

As this concept continues to penetrate our mainstream mind and thoughts, it’s only more important that we think – on our own and in groups – about how we define it today with an eye towards something, somewhere further into the future.

That’s why these recent conversations have been so excellent. Conversations with thoughtful people who are also struggling around what “sustainability” is has been great.

Because when one tackles something so large, something that you can come at from so many different angles, a range of perspectives shared between strangers who share a mutual interest in understanding and doing something with this enhanced understanding is invaluable.

It can be through the struggles and through the hard times, where the future is hard to see or know, that can result in the greatest momentum, of growth, and outcomes.

It would be hard for me to put together everything I’ve learned in these past few months right here, right now, and combine that with the amount of thinking I did about this while living in China’s biggest northern city and one of its smaller Southwestern villages over the past decade.

But my answer today, is a lot like answers look on Jeopardy: in question form.

Given the magnitude of the conversation around sustainability, it’s hard to find that an answer that’s one size fits all.

And perhaps that’s the point when we’re thinking about what it means or what it can mean.

So yes, of course, everyone has a different definition.

Which means the real question is: what can and does it mean for us?

And what can we do about it today as we think a bit about tomorrow?

Time for an Honest Conversation with Khan

What if you made somebody’s day just by asking them a question or two?

Khan came to New York 33 years ago.

He’s married.

Now has five kids.

His wife wanted a son.

5th time was a charm.

They live in a 2-bedroom place in Brooklyn.

The kids range from 22-13.

The eldest is studying to be a pharmacist. The second studies criminology. The third is celebrating her 16th birthday. The fourth and fifth (son) are just about a year a part.

The son loves basketball and Michael Jordan. Dad’s not sure where this will all go. But he believes everything will be okay.

Honesty is Khan’s #1 piece of advice to his kids. He believes and tells them that as long as they are honest they will be alright.

Khan makes honest, clean money. It’s important to him.

He thinks New York is a rough place. People are too busy for anything else.

go Go GO.

In the cab. Out the cab. With the coffee. Little more than a hello. Very few people have time for a question, let alone a conversation.

We had a funny moment when I asked him about funny questions that people have asked him.

It took him a little bit, I actually thought he was moving on from the question.

But then he told me about a time seven years ago when he used to drive the evening shift – which he doesn’t do anymore – and a couple asked whether or not they could have sex in his cab.

“Does this look like a hotel to you?” he asked me with a nervous smile.

“Wow.

“Any other questions?” I wondered aloud

He explained he was already embarrassed and too embarrassed to recount other stories.

After a little small talk we arrived at our destination.

Khan got out of the cab, looked me in the eye while he shook my hand, and thanked me for a good conversation.

People don’t have time for conversations these days, I guess.

But I learned a lot about humility, family togetherness (I can only imagine what it must be like to live with 7 people in a 2-room apartment), patience, hard work, honesty, and an ability to go with the flow.

What if you made time for a short conversation with a stranger? Surely you could find some topic of mutual interest.

What if you made somebody’s day just by asking them a question or two?

And what if one of those questions also made yours?