Some of my life’s most profound lessons have unfolded themselves while in transit. Perhaps it’s the idea of being in transition from one place to another that elicits a wisdom only travelers cultivate. Then, the need to share the ripened wisdom with those within your parameter.
For example, the summer after tenth grade, on the way from Cordoba to Madrid, Spain, I met an older man with whom I spoke for two hours straight. This was the first time I had ever spoken to someone in a language I didn’t grow up speaking – without consulting a dictionary. The two-hour conversation proved to be such a milestone for me that I decided to enter college two years later as a Spanish major. I learned then that while there are many barriers to communication – linguistic, cultural, or personal in nature – enthusiasm, earnst, and humility are understood without ever saying a word. I took an important lesson with me that day.
This time was no exception.
If you’ve ever ridden the Chinatown bus from D.C. to New York, you know that the boarding “process” is a fight for your life. Neither your seat nor your life are guaranteed by the time you make it on to the bus. Despite the fact that you have pre-purchased a ticket online. The bus is usually overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and if you’re traveling in the fall, wet from the rain that hitchhikes on people’s shoes from puddle to bus. With my fortune and agility, I score a seat by the window and get settled into my cramped environment. It smells like wet felt. The person in front of me has graciously reclined their seat all the way back. And there is a complimentary plastic trash bag imprinted with a smiley face hanging on each seat which reads, “Have a nice day!” Oh, Chinatown. You’ve always had a knack for irony.
Azam, a man in his mid-forties, stumbles down the aisle holding nothing but a small duffel bag with his belongings. Gasping for air, he plops down into the seat next to me. I like his thin wire glasses and convivial smile, but I don’t say anything. City life has hardened my initial native Californian sunny disposition. The driver angrily yells at all the passengers in Mandarin, and before the unexplained guilt of being yelled at (even in a language we don’t understand) sets into its passengers, the bus begins to move.
“What did he say?” Azam asks. It takes me a while to understand that he directed his inquiry at me.
“I have no idea. I’m not Chinese,” I told him, slightly irritated at his assumption.
“Oh, sorry. Looks like Chinese,” he smiled, gesturing a circle around my face with his index finger. I’m slightly more irked that he said that out loud instead of thinking it to himself, but I pretend to go to sleep. “Chinese people, some of the best people!” Seriously? I’m pretending to sleep and he’s still talking. He has absolutely no idea how to take a hint.
“Like I said, I’m not Chinese, but I’m sure there are a lot of nice people of all backgrounds,” I preached a little.
“You know, I think you are correct! Where are you from?”
Concluding that he meant to ask about my ethnicity, I replied, “I’m Vietnamese.”
“Oh! You speak Thai?”
“No, I speak Vietnamese.” I guess that wasn’t as self-explanatory as I thought.
“Oh, I speak Urdu. You borned here?”
“Yes, I was born here, but my parents are from Vietnam. They were immigrants.”
“I immigrant too! Born in Pakistan. I come here 16 years already,” he says with much gusto. He puts his hand over his heart and sits up straighter as he tells me this. I decide then that maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental. He seems like a decent man. “I am Azam.”
“Lily.” I extend my hand to shake his.
“You have a pretty name. It means ‘flower,’ no?”
“My name means ‘king.’ You are a flower and I am a king! Heh, heh, heh!” His chuckle is the lighthearted kind, the kind that shakes your shoulders up and down when it exits your body.
I want to laugh too, but I don’t know whether it would seem like I’m laughing at him instead of next to him. So I stay quiet. A silence sits between us for a while, but he doesn’t seem fazed. I can tell he’s the kind that is energized simply by being around others.
“You like people, don’t you?” I think aloud. I can feel myself becoming friendlier, less resistant to his company.
“Yes! Already you know me well! How do you know?”
“I had a feeling.”
“Yes, yes! Heh, heh, heh! Can you believe me? I learn English only from customers. I have the best job, dream job. Do you know what it is?”
“No, what is it?”
“Dunkin Donuts! The best job. I meet so many people every day and I learn from them different things.” He is beaming as he tells me this. Not everyone would boast about a job at Dunkin Donuts, but this guy would stand on at the top of the Empire State Building and scream it out loud if he could.
“That’s great! You speak English very well.”
“Thank you! You too! Heh, heh, heh!”
“Will you teach me some Urdu?”
“Okay, I will teach you to greeting. You must say, ‘Kya hal he.’ for ‘Hello.'”
“Keeya hal huh,” I struggle awkwardly with sounds I’ve never tried to produce before.
“Very good! You are good at learning language! You like it, no? Just like me. I love to learn language.”
“That’s a very good guess. I do enjoy learning languages a lot. I’m trying to learn as many as I can. French currently. Now I can practice Urdu thanks to you.”
“Wonderful! Wonderful! I am glad I meet you.”
He gives me a few more Urdu phrases to practice. Since I don’t have any paper with me to write on, I type it into my BlackBerry and save it there. We talk more about languages, Pakistan, Vietnam, and New York.
“There is place for everyone in New York,” he states with wisdom, as if the idea was purely an original one. I tell him that I agree. “I love to live in Manhattan. It’s best place!”
Another silence between us. I start to think we’ve exhausted our topics for conversation so I close my eyes. Django Reinhardt is playing on my iPod, and I start thinking about what I’m going to do in the city. Then, the bus swerves and the jolt wakes me up. The driver is honking and yelling in Mandarin. Azam notices I’m awake again.
“You know, Lily, I’m glad I meet you. Bus driver is terrible and weather is suck, but company is good. Sometime you meet people who think like you and you are lucky. You are lucky because you are not alone to love life.” Here I was simply expecting to get from D.C. to Manhattan alive, and I get a personal thesis as an added bonus. He continued, “To be human is a wonderful thing. You could be borned animal or plant, but you are human being. Human can feel, learn, and create. Human have built pyramid and created governments. Human can survive on their own. If you want to learn language, it is easy. Human can do much harder things.”
With that, he chuckled one last time and closed his eyes. We didn’t exchange any other words the rest of the way. To be human is a wonderful thing. I let that sit with me for a while. At a time when my mind is constantly reconciling the nexus of desire and capacity in my life, my life and Azam’s intersected to produce that salient moment. In that moment, I felt inspired to make my life – my human life – as extraordinary as I possibly can. I owed it to probability, or improbability, rather. That I was born into this life instead of any other is already a blessing, and since my time on this earth is limited, I’d best make good use of it.
When the bus arrived in New York, the weary travelers filed out of the bus with heavy feet into the Manhattan smokescreen. I turned around to say goodbye to Azam, but he was gone. I felt a sudden stab in my side because I regretted not being able to say thank you. All I knew of his whereabouts was that he worked at Dunkin Donuts.
Some people come into your life for a season, teach you something about yourself, then leave as quickly as they came. Even if that season is as short as a 4-hour bus ride, what you take away lasts much longer. Maybe one day we’ll meet again, but until then, I’ll continue to be grateful for my brief encounter. Now, I can’t help but smile fondly whenever I pass a Dunkin Donuts in the city, thinking that Azam the king might be chatting up a local customer and passing on his philosophy with a hearty chuckle.