Today, as I was on my way home from work, I walked past a man sitting stationary on his bicycle. He had his head swiveled back toward me and smiled as I was walking by.
“Lisa! How have you been?” he yelled.
“Wrong person”, I said. I was walking briskly because I realized I’d parked my bike in a place where it might be removed or stolen.
“You’re from Surrey, right? Remember me?” he continued.
I get this a lot. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the demographics of Metro Vancouver, Surrey is a municipality known for a large Indian population. Because of the colour of my skin, many people assume I’m from Surrey.
“I’m not from Surrey”, I said with an obvious hint of annoyance.
At this point, he was biking slowly beside me as I walked quickly. I asked him why he assumed I was from Surrey and he said he just confused me with someone he knows who’s from there.
“What’s your name, then?” he asked.
I told him my name as I unlocked my bike, relieved to have found it amidst feeling slightly frustrated by the encounter I’d just had. Although I would have normally left in an excused rush at this point, I decided to stay and have a conversation with him. After all, I hadn’t yet met my stranger of the day and I felt like he had a story to share, even though admittedly I was feeling a little uncomfortable. It was broad daylight in a busy park and I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
I could have calculated the situation in two polarized, albeit oversimplified ways:
1) He appeared to be waiting patiently for someone to walk by + he pulled a cliché line saying he recognized me + a potentially racist remark assuming I’m from Surrey + following me even though I looked uncomfortable talking to him = he’s a bad person and I shouldn’t talk to him
2) He was going about his day in a leisurely way and likes to talk to strangers + he actually probably did think I was a friend of his + he was just really friendly = he’s a good person and I should talk to him
My critical side was unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt but I stayed anyways, while remaining slightly skeptical. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate ourselves from our experiences. Having been in similar situations in the past, it would have been all too easy for me to have assumed that his intentions were bad. But I decided it was worth exploring more deeply.
I told him about my project and asked if he’d be my stranger of the day. I explained that oftentimes people walk past each other without acknowledging or speaking to one another. These remarks resonated with him. He sees it all the time and thinks it’s absurd that strangers don’t speak to each other more.
He pointed to the people walking behind us. “Look”, he said. “The people walking past each other don’t acknowledge one another, but their dogs always do. They sniff each other, they run after each other, they play with each other.” He was right. Perhaps, as animals, it’s unnatural for us humans to walk past each other without even a shared glance. Perhaps we have been so deeply socialized by new norms of individualism and mistrust that we force ourselves to behave in an unnatural way. I can certainly say that when I walk past someone on the street without acknowledging their existence, it feels forced and unnatural. I think he’s on to something.
Then, with perhaps less profundity, he asked: “would you say that women in Vancouver are stuck up?” He let out a slight chuckle, all the while still expressing a tone of novel interest and utmost authenticity. I kept my reservations aside and gave him an honest response.
I explained that I believe a lot of women in Vancouver are unresponsive and short with men at times because they are, rightfully, afraid and skeptical. I described the deeply entrenched fear and lack of trust instilled by rape culture and the sexual assaults that have happened in our city even in the middle of the day. Truly, not all women are unresponsive because of this or unresponsive at all. But some of those who are, are because of this.
“Sexual assaults?! In the middle of the day?” He was shocked, seemingly unaware of these events. I lamented the situation but stood up for those women who feel a need to protect themselves. It’s probably not that they’re stuck up, but rather that they’re trying to protect themselves. He received my response earnestly, feeling as though he had learned something he didn’t know before.
He smiled with his entire face, with what looked like hours-old residual sunscreen perched meticulously within the crevices of his wrinkles. He had on long socks and short shin guards after what had been a tiring game of soccer under the sun.
His name is Shamari. He grew up in Jamaica. He loves drawing and painting, traveling and music, sports and meeting new people. He works in the automobile industry.
Shamari shared with me a fond memory from his childhood, reminiscing a time when he was just five or six years old. It was a momentous day for him one morning when he woke up to his parents asking if he wanted to make breakfast with his grandmother. He had never experienced cooking for himself and he was excited to have a chance to give it a try. So he went over to his grandmother’s home filled with excitement to be preparing breakfast with her.
His grandmother gave him an empty bottle and instructed him to go to the local store, which was basically a table set up outside. There, he was to have the bottle filled part way with cooking oil. He was also asked to pick up two eggs for he and his grandmother to cook together. He followed her instructions very carefully, with an eagerness and anticipation not unlike that of a child on Christmas morning.
When he returned to his grandmother, she poured the oil onto the pan and showed Shamari how to crack an egg by demonstrating with the first one. He then cracked the second egg himself but was completely shocked by what he saw. “There was a baby chicken on the pan!” he said, with a tone of shock as bold as though it had happened just yesterday. His grandmother made him take the broken eggshell and chick back to the store to show them proof of their error so that he could receive a new egg in return.
When breakfast was ready, his grandmother yelled at him to come to the table but he ignored her, pretending he couldn’t hear. He had lost his appetite. And from that day onward, Shamari has been a vegetarian, avoiding animal byproducts.
His advice? “Eat right, talk right, think right, do right.” He believes that the path to world peace begins with a diet that is peaceful to all animal life forms. “When we stop eating animals”, he said, “we will be able to live in peace.”
We talked about nature, the sun and the moon, the earth and our relationship to it. A lot of his insights were very intelligent. I asked him if he had ever gone to school. He said he had gone to elementary school and some high school when he was in Jamaica, but that he never received a post-secondary education. He says that if he could afford it, he would pursue an education now. He did, however, express his frustrations with the school system. “Things that are done in bulk are usually not done well”, he said. I thought for a moment, comparing my experiences in 300-student lectures to my 15-student lectures, the taste of bulk-manufactured muffins to the ones my mom makes at home… and I felt the weight of his accuracy. Going to school doesn’t make you smart and being smart doesn’t require a formal education. Shamari makes sure that he is always learning.
We then reflected on our encounter as a whole, and how I’d reacted to his attention initially.
I explained that men have called out to me in the past in ways that have made me feel uncomfortable. What happened next was profound. Shamari asked me what I consider to be disrespectful and what I consider to be acceptable in the ways that people approach me. I told him that comments on my body or how I look, or impersonal remarks in general, often leave me feeling objectified and disrespected, upset and uncomfortable. But when people approach me with genuine interest in who I am as a person, I’m beyond receptive. It was a teaching moment. Shamari expressed his gratitude for the lessons I’d shared and I expressed my appreciation for having had his stories shared with me.
Shamari went from falling off his bike while we spoke, attributing it to having gotten lost in my “are they brown or hazel?” eyes, to listening intently to my advice about how to approach women, and all people for the matter, with respect. It was remarkable.