I love food. Love buying it, love cooking it, and love eating. Maybe this is the reason why I don’t like cooking only for myself. As a result, I often invite people over for meals. If you know me (and I like you), you have definitely eaten something cooked by me. The 3/4ths of a year I spent in Chicago was filled with many such get-togethers. Once I had invited my Chinese friends over and was waiting for them in the lobby so I could let them in—International House, the dorm where I stayed, was entry by key access. I-House also organised a lot of cultural events, open to all, and on such occasions the front doors were kept unlocked. Which meant I should have been waiting for their text/call instead of them but then we wouldn’t have this story. So there I was, hovering like a poltergeist, when a lady came out of the Assembly Hall (where the talk/show was being held) and walked towards me. I was prepared to be all ghostlike and pretend I wasn’t there because I’m one those people, the ones you see on movie and TV screens, the ones who turn around to see who the person waving at them is waving at. She asked where she could find drinking water. I told her about the drinking fountain in the dining area (I’m not rude; lack of ‘normal’ amounts of confidence makes me do ‘inappropriate’ things sometimes). She wanted to eat her medicines and asked again, even started to give me money so I could buy her a bottle of water. I walked to my locker, took out a glass, filled it with water, and brought it back to her. She was thankful. I hung around because I wasn’t sure if she would drink the entire thing then, ask for more, throw the glass away, take it with her, or just because I didn’t know what the next proper response was. Then I left. My friends reached. They brought food with them (they never listen!). We had a great time. Sometimes they would forget about me and start jabbering away in Mandarin so I would go back to my favourite pastime of observing people, freed from the obligation of taking part in a conversation. After I had said goodbye to them and was walking back, I crossed the place where I had met the lady. My glass was still there. Underneath it was a note.
For some reason (okay, I know what reason), the janitorial staff at I-House is either Hispanic or African-American. During my first week there, I once shared an elevator with a Mexican expat/naturalized US citizen(?). He started to speak to me in Spanish before my clueless expression gave me away. We went on to become good friends. I would always say hola when I spotted him, regardless of the fact that we didn’t have much to say to each other. Everything that could be said had already been spoken. All the Spanish phrases he had taught me had been endlessly repeated. He was assigned my floor so I would know it was him whenever I heard cleaning sounds in the loo. On one such loo visit, he told me about the bad cold and headache he was suffering through and I offered to give him some medicine I had carried from home (my mum is a doctor; I’ve been self-medicating from a long, long time). He was super pleased and thankful but then he was always super cheerful, even while complaining about being ill. I met him a few days later and he was better, and feeling super-super-pleased, so much so that he was telling the other cleaning staff member about the huge “favour” I had done him (I ended up giving medicine to the other guy too). He then invited me to share his lunch and I politely refused (note to self: do not pass up opportunities to have good food!). I had no idea how thankful he was until I reached my room to find a box of chocolate precariously balanced on the door handle.
I don’t quite know how to deal with people thanking me. My native language doesn’t even have a word for “welcome”. My mum gave me a gentle ribbing for my medicine-for-chocolate programme when I told her about it. In the end, it was J who had done a kindness to me. Like the lady with the tall glass of water. Both these thank you notes made me feel like I mattered. That at a certain point in time, I had made a meaningful, positive difference to someone’s life. The number of people who have been kind to me is way larger than the number of people who I have been helpful to. I think this is the way I should (mis?)represent it in my head, it inspires me to keep trying to level the score. Every time I feel used or exploited by a friend or family member, I think of my friend who gave me her pack of Oreo biscuits during a lunch talk because the only thing being served was pepperoni pizza (ah! the trials of being a vegetarian in a carnivorous world). The same friend who, within two hours of talking to me, gave me a free ticket to the Field Museum (a place I wouldn’t have visited otherwise). The woman in Boston who stopped me and offered to give me directions when I was lost in the rain. The man on the platform in a Frankfurt station who stopped me from getting on the wrong train, not to the airport, when I was saddled with two heavy suitcases and the worry of getting them out of there. The young girl at the Ben Gurion airport bus terminal who stopped me from getting on the wrong bus (there was more trouble later when I finally reached Herzliya). All these people who helped a stranger, without being asked, without expecting anything in return. In doing a kindness to other people, you are doing a kindness to yourself. Because what goes around, comes around. Be nice to everyone, even if they are not nice to you, because someone is waiting for the chance to be nice to you. Random kindness is the most contagious form there is so let’s just infect everybody. Make this world a kinder place.
If you feel warm and fuzzy after reading this (or otherwise), please tell me about a time when somebody random was nice to you (in a comment below).