The People We Meet in Transit
“Where are you from?” asked a charming aspiring journalist, Alessandro, outside one of my go-to French wine bars on a Friday night where my friends and I were keen on getting a glass of red wine to celebrate the end of the week.
“I was born and raised in the Philippines, but I recently moved to Hong Kong for work.” I answered with a smile, unfazed, as this question is commonly used as a conversation opener.
“Oh? Tell me about it.” Slightly hesitant, I eventually opened up and told him that after watching the entire series of Mad Men back when I was still a university student, I was convinced that I wanted to become a copywriter and create brilliant ads like fictional character, Don Draper.
Laughing out loud, I explained that I found my dream silly after experiencing first-hand of being a copywriting intern for one of the largest advertising agencies back home.
At that point in my life, I observed the struggles of being a creative. My younger self discovered the never ending battle between clients and creatives, the constant storyboard revisions, the endless working hours, sleepless nights and the adrenaline pumping pressure to get the job done even when given the creative brief thirty minutes prior to going home.
So, I gave up on my copywriting dream to explore other career options in Hong Kong. Alessandro intently listened, knowing the cues when to smile, laugh and ask the right questions. In return, he shared that he himself moved from Italy pushing for his dream to become a journalist. He’s currently taking up a Masters degree in Journalism at Hong Kong University and on most days he’s out doing field work, filming documentaries about life in Hong Kong.
Being an aspiring journalist myself, I told him my plans on becoming one too. He grinned and smiled urging me to follow that path. “I’ll consider it,” I said.
Our conversation lasted for a good twenty minutes. We took our photos and we searched for each other on Facebook adding each other as contacts. Shortly after, Alessandro goes back to his group of friends as I turned to mine. At that moment, we both quietly slip away and return to being strangers. Still glancing at each other from time to time while sipping our drinks.
People in transit - this is the phrase that an acquaintance of mine described the people you meet in Hong Kong. You could be focused on your everyday rhythm of life and then during the most mundane occurrence, you unexpectedly find yourself laughing at the jokes of a stranger you met during dinner or chatting up the person who made small talk on the way up to your apartment floor.
At that moment in time during the exchange of conversation, the connection is real. Some stronger than most, some slightly dimmed, but the presence is felt. The moment could last a day or two, a couple of months, or if you're lucky enough - it'll never leave. But on other circumstances, eventually, the moment you have with that person passes and you slowly go back to your everyday grind.
The connection fades and everything goes back to normal. You wake up, prepare for the day, hop on the 9:31 am train to work, walk to your favorite coffee shop and grab your cup of black coffee. Nothing different, life remains the same.
That’s the beauty of meeting people from all walks of life, others may say. There are so many stories waiting to be told, but on the other hand, there are those people who are completely terrified of the idea of sharing their story that they would never want to open up again.
When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was warned that it would be difficult to find a core group of friends that you could consider home. It would be quite a cold country to live in, they said. Coming from Manila, I didn’t mind. I was looking forward to a new beginning and starting over again from scratch. Back home, everyone seemed to know each other. You could easily identify who’s who by the university you went to, who your set of friends were or where you worked - you get the idea. With that kind of experience, I was ecstatic to begin again. I didn’t know a soul and I was positive that finding that connection with people wouldn’t be impossible to find.
Three months in, I found myself trying to find ways to make friends - attending events, wondering if I could blend in the existing social circles of the acquaintances I’ve met. I signed up for classes that catered to my interests, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t find anyone interesting enough. Friends of mine suggested apps, but I found it too stressful at the thought of meeting up with people I didn’t know. How would I know if they weren’t going to kill me? Apps aren’t my cup of tea, said the self-proclaimed old soul.
So, how on earth was I going to meet new people? My eyebrows furrowed at the thought thinking this was a little bit too difficult than I expected. Maybe I wasn’t as outgoing as I thought. Was I not too independent either? Am I homesick? Am I clinging on to what’s familiar?
When I was having a conversation with a friend on Skype, she asked where was I having difficulty with. I told her that it was different because compared to before, you knew exactly who to call when you wanted to head out to watch a film, you also knew who to approach when you want to have a fun night out. But living in an entirely new place where you know no one, you have to actually make an effort to put yourself out there and find those people again.
If you don’t move, nothing happens, which was in fact a struggle for a person like me who has a constant battle of lounging at home, being productive or also wondering if I should make an effort to go out.
Without even noticing, I forced myself to find that connection with others leading to being drained at the end of the day due to my disappointment. When I came across people, I would try to make the connection work, find shortcuts and justify that adjustments had to be made even when I wasn’t comfortable. As this went on, I had this mindset of, "Here we go, talking about ourselves again". And what was the point? You wear yourself out, you feel nothing and what you talk about is actually an automatic script from your bank of topics you were always prepared to talk about.
As I struggled to find that human connection, I found myself being even more self-aware. Why did I want to go out all the time? Was I not comfortable being alone? And there it was - the truth - I wasn’t comfortable being alone with my thoughts and myself.
As time progressed, I was exhausted. I no longer forced things to happen. I worked on being content and focused on being comfortable with solitude instead. I was much happier doing things my own, honing my craft, pursuing what inspired me. I used that feeling of being uncomfortable as fuel to change my perspective on how I saw my experiences.
One day I was walking home and I passed by a coffee shop that reminded me of a person I used to go out with. For a split second, I wondered if that person was thinking of me as well every time he came across a particular place due to the moment we had together. I then had the sudden realization that it’s not limited to just a place. He could associate me with a song, a book, a quote, a line, a certain dish, movie, season, game, drink - you name it. It could even be the details I forgot, but he would forever associate it with me.
If you look into the details, it could be quite terrifying to open yourself up to a stranger. You’re starting from scratch, slowly investing yourself into another other person. You share your interests, hoping in secret you both would click. Or maybe you could relate it to Neil Gaiman’s, The Kindly Ones, where he says, “You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore.”
But, you could look at it from a different perspective as well, not seeing it as terrifying, but a moment of endless possibilities. Maybe this time, it would work. Maybe this time, this could stay. Maybe I should ask you, would you rather look at someone in the eye with marvel thinking on how exciting this must be or would you rather sigh and wonder asking, “How long do I have? How long will this last?”
That Saturday morning, I checked my Facebook account and noticed Alessandro and I were friends. I skimmed through his profile and went through his most recent posts. Family photos here and there. Shared videos of the short documentaries he made, a link or two from notable websites. I scroll down even further, gathering pieces of him. Learning a little bit more about him. I decided to close the browser.
Am I ever going to encounter him again? Honestly, we’ll never know. A year ago, it would've bothered me because I was always in a rush to figure things out. Surprisingly, this time around, I wasn't in a rush. After all, we are all people in transit, trying to flow with this current called life. There’s a reason for the people we meet where they teach us a lesson or two. Being completely content with our own company or not, what is there to fear?
Words by: Betina Libre