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?

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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?