A Stranger’s Act of… Kindness?

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A few days ago, something interesting happened. I say interesting because it was untypical behavior from me and I still can’t quite understand why I did what I did. But I have a hum, an idea of what happened. Let me tell you.

I was in the city center at the shopping mall, when a young man with an immigrant background came to me and asked in English, if I could give him money for food. I didn’t have any cash with me so I said no (I also think it’s always problematic to give money to a stranger because you don’t really know what the money is used for and even if I had cash, I probably wouldn’t give it).

But then he pointed to Burger King next to us and asked if I could buy him and his girlfriend a meal. I said no as politely as I could and left the situation.

But then I watched them ask more and more people for the same thing and everyone kept saying no, and I noticed how this started nagging me. I had just spent fifty euros at a hairdresser and another fifty to buy myself new jeans – but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, buy two people a meal? And in addition to this, I was also curious: were they here, every day, asking for money for food?

I twisted and turned for a couple of minutes thinking about it – but then walked back to the couple. 

The look on their faces was vague amazement, like they didn’t really dare to hope for what they thought was happening. 

“Don’t you have any money for food? Ever?” I asked them.

“Well, yes, when we are at home in Tampere”, the young man answered me, speaking with his accent. “But we are here to look for a job.”

And I nodded and said: “I can buy you a meal, this time.”

And so we walked to Burger King. 

Reasons For Taking Action

I asked how old they were. The man was 22, the girl 19. He was the one who spoke English quite well, the girl could only a few words. I watched them make their order and paid for their meal that was 17,95 euros in total.

The young man shook my hand (although it was a weak handshake, and I would have liked to tell him how important a good handshake is) and thanked me, but the real gratefulness was in the girl’s eyes.

“Thank you”, she said with her struggling English as she hugged me.

“Take care”, I answered and hugged back.

I think we shared a moment, then and there, me and that girl.

But then, afterwards, I started thinking why I had done it. Why did I help this immigrant couple? Why did I give them money when I’m trying to find a job for myself and don’t really have a regular income?

I can’t say it felt like I had done the good deed. I didn’t feel especially good about myself although one could categorize my action as charity and charity is supposed to give you a good feeling. I didn’t even know how to share what happened with anyone because I didn’t know what I thought about the whole thing. 

So what happened in my mind when I decided to go back to the young couple and offer them a meal?

After turning it for a few hours in my mind and finally sharing it with a friend, I came to one kind of conclusion: instead of being an act of kindness it was more like an act of rebellion. Rebellion against the stereotypes, the hate speech, the prejudice.

I believe it is so rare in our western society to help the less wealthy especially if we don’t share the same skin color and language. It’s easy to judge someone based on their appearance. 

And still, these two were clothed normally, they behaved well, they didn’t shout or curse or throw ugly glances at those who didn’t want to give them money.

I have seen many Finns who behave the exact opposite.

Somehow, it was seeing the reactions of other Finns when someone with an immigrant background asks for their money that made me turn back and do precisely the opposite most people I know would do. And I wanted to know – it was curiosity – why did they have to do this? Why was this happening?

The Future of Societies

The thing is, I can’t be sure they told me the truth. It can be that they live in this city rather than somewhere else, that they have money and they simply want other people’s money just because.

It can be that they spend their money on other things and that leaves them without food, and I can only hope it isn’t drugs, alcohol or any other addictive substances. There is still doubt in me: were they really as poor as they made it seem?

The only thing I could do, this one time, was to trust these people and give them what I could spare.

The world is changing – the immigrants are here to stay, the societies become more and more multicultural and we have to work hard to have a society where we can trust each other and believe in the good in strangers. 

Because how can we help if we don’t trust? And how can we trust if we don’t help?

I don’t know if I would do it again and that makes me wonder what it tells about me, about good deeds and the future of our societies. But may that be another thought process for another time.

Instead, after all this, taking action and wondering about it, my friend said it quite well: “It’s a good thing to do surprising things, every now and then, as long as it doesn’t throw you off your budget. And it’s good for the brain.”

And it’s good for the brain. That I can agree on – definitely.

 

Ways To Connect With People

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Thought-provoking art work by Peter Stichbury (NDE, 2013)

Thanks to our digital devices, the developing technology and all the opportunities available online, it becomes easy to isolate ourselves from the real society around us.

It’s definitely easier to be social online without needing to worry about your looks or your energy levels, the weather or what cake to choose in the café. It is also definitely wonderful to find inspiration online on social media, on blogs and random websites, and to connect with other like-minded people. To know you’re not alone with your passion to write a book, start a business, go separate ways with your long-time partner or start a new life somewhere else.

But all of this exists also outside the Internet, social media and forums. You can find it in real life as well.

As we are rounding up our half-year adventure, we flew from Christchurch to Auckland to spend a few days in the capital city before returning to Finland. As we had been renting a private room in a house in Christchurch, staying at a hostel seemed like a refreshing change. It would be nice to meet new people, right?

The great thing about hostels is that it’s impossible to not meet new people. You share a room with them, you eat breakfast at the same table, you make travel plans and get advice from more experienced backpackers. Hostels are backpacker hubs. That’s what we thought, at least.

But our digital lives have changed that hostel culture.

I could already see it in Malaysia when we were staying at a hostel in Cameron Highlands. In Auckland, however, the effect of technology and digitalization could be seen even more clearly.

The combined kitchen/lounge area of a hostel is supposed to be the place where people talk and get together. Instead, we saw people sitting alone, eating their food while facing their phone, watching a video or scrolling their feed, isolating themselves from their surroundings with headphones. One time, when we tried talking to a girl, she was too busy taking a perfect picture of her food for social media to stay on track with the conversation we were having.

It’s weird that people wish to hold on to their social media fees, keep on following the same content producers as back home – why travel if you’ll only do the same things on your phone abroad that you would at home?

Only sometimes, when we played Skip-bo or any other card game, we could spark up some conversation with the few who weren’t distracted by their phones or who had dared to sit at one of the bigger tables. But taking out your phone or turning on the TV – it’s a conversation killer, a passive force that takes over and to which we so easily succumb to.

Hostels, the places that were supposed to be backpacker hubs, where the free travelers gather and talk, seem to be dying. Or at least, changing form, if our digital consumption continues as it does. The cultural exchange goes lost when you can do it online, the conversations die when you can have them on your phone, the stories are already out there, on the Internet. What do we need social, real life experiences for anymore?

However, there is hope.

Lucky for us, we got to meet curious characters elsewhere in the city. We met a couple of Swedes queuing to the same impressive gelato shop and ended up sharing our ice cream experience with them. Two days later, at a café, we shared a table with an older man who knew surprisingly lot about Finland and its history with Russia, and we got into a conversation about the differences between New Zealand and Scandinavian countries.

And the thing is: I think both conversations bloomed because we kept our phones in our pockets and instead opted to observe our surroundings. We looked like we were up for a conversation, open-minded and curious about the people around us.

The Internet is a wonderful place but only if we use it wisely. If we let ourselves become isolated, if we find it ”too hard” to let go of social media, if we can’t let go and instead embrace the awkward silences, the seeking conversation-starters and sometimes even weird conversation partners… I honestly don’t know what the world will look like in ten years.

It’s already happening in hostels, the sacred places of connectivity and feeling of community. And if it’s happening there, it’s most likely happening elsewhere as well. But  believe me when I say that putting away your phone, headphones, laptop or any other mobile device will do wonders. For you, both internally and socially.

Let’s prioritize real human connection. Our phones and social media feeds aren’t going anywhere. People around you, however, might.

 

What We Gain By Being ‘Lazy’

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In Georgetown, Malaysia we met a couple at our hostel. They had already been on the road for three months and still had months and months of travel ahead of them. As we were eager to hear their story we sat down at the same table to eat breakfast and drink coffee.

Up until May, the couple had been living their life in the UK, working and saving up money for their own house. But then they had realized that the kind of life they were building for, they weren’t ready for it. Not yet.

So, they quit their jobs, took the money they had saved and hit the road.

At some point, however, they intend to return to their home country and start working again. And this was clearly something they had been thinking about because the woman said:

“I hope that the employers don’t see our travels as being lazy.”

This got me thinking because what she said really is something worth hoping for.

Study-Work Continuum

In many western countries, both education and work are seen as something incredibly valuable, something worth focusing on. Many grow up learning that either you study or you work but there’s no option in-between which means that after you’ve finished your education you continue to the work life and stay there until you’re ready to retire. We are encouraged to fall into the school-work continuum.

The decision to sell your belongings (or store them somewhere), leave everything you have behind and hit the road is, however, the complete opposite of the school-work continuum of a western modern society. Because being on the road, traveling, is neither studying or working.

At least from the society’s point of view – because taking a year or more off to travel leaves a big gaping hole in your CV. I can only imagine the job interview where the leap year is noticed:

“What did you do during this year?”
“I was abroad.”
“Hmph, and where did you go on holiday?”
“Southeast Asia, mostly – I traveled around. It was really wonderful! Affordable, the people were so friendly and the nature amazing.”
“I see.”

The employer might very well think you spent the last year chillaxing on the beach or riding a motorcycle without a helmet on. And he probably thinks that you, during that time, didn’t so much as lift as a finger.

But the thing is, traveling and especially backpacking isn’t being lazy.

It’s a lot of work. Almost like a full-time job, really.

Gaining Knowledge

During these six weeks on the road, we’ve slowly but surely gotten into the groove of traveling. Currently, we are in our third country in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, and plan to be here three weeks before flying to our next destination.

During these six weeks, we’ve familiarized ourselves and adapted to three different cultures: Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. We’ve learnt the basics of their social norms and etiquette, we’ve learned some of the key phrases of their language and figured out how their monetary system work. We have gained understanding of their culture, their cuisine, religion, and infrastructure.

At the same time, we have gained perspective on our own country, our infrastructure, the western culture and social norms. We have seen how things can be done, how they shouldn’t be done and how different the people in Southeast Asia see their world, life and future compared to the western cultures.

This, for instance, is extremely valuable in the ever more globalized and multicultural world.

In addition to this, we’ve also become pro at planning and executing the plans. Every few days we sit down, take out the computer and connect it to the best wi-fi we can find. We research our travel options, figure out when and where the bus or the train will go, where we will end up in and where we are going to stay.

In a new place, we learn where the ATMs are, where the best local food is served, where we can find the nearest convenience store for water (and ice cream) and learn to know other backpackers and travelers staying in the same place.

We try to find out where we can do our laundry, where we can find proper, vitamin-rich food (believe me, it’s a struggle) and where’s the pharmacy when you get sick (just did this in Hanoi) or how to deal with bedbug bites (unfortunately, it did happen).

The ability to adapt is a good skill to have in the modern society – and something not all people have.

Learning New Skills

Being on the road, carrying all our belongings with us, is a rollercoaster ride of new skills, constant adapting and evolving, conflicts, success and learning to be social with so many people from so many different cultures.

In other words, being on the road is far from being lazy. The couple we spoke to during that breakfast knew it and we know it.

Being on the road gives you competences that staying at home never can give: you gain unique perspective on your own culture, social norms and the structure of your society; you become a thinker and a doer, and you are more okay with adapting to new situations and new people. You are constantly kicked out from your comfort zone which forces you to self-development.

People who have been on the road are actually golden in modern societies that are constantly changing and becoming more multicultural than ever before.

And if the employer doesn’t understand this when you tell him/her about your year on the road – maybe you’re applying for the wrong job (or the right job but with the wrong boss).

Reconnecting

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The past seven days have gone by in a whiff. I’ve done the hours of two work weeks in just one, which means that I’m quite tired and, most of all, out of sensible things to say.

In Finland, whenever there’s an election, the actual voting day is preceded by an advanced voting which lasts a week. During that time, one can vote anywhere in Finland. This year, up to 36,1 percent of all entitled voters decided to vote in advance – and I was there to register their votes during those seven days.

(Not all of them, of course, but several thousand of them)

So, at the moment, after doing 12-hour days many days in a row, I’m just trying to rebuild my thoughts and return to my own daily routines of writing and working on my thesis. I’m reconnecting to my usual life, so to speak. That means that today, I don’t have that much to share, except maybe this one thought:

When there’s a line of voters waiting to put a number on a ballot, and that line goes on for 11 hours straight, the person registering all those votes slowly realizes how everything loses its value.

A vote so precious for the ideals of democracy becomes just a folded paper with a number on it.

The number written on that ballot, the one so precious for the candidate because it means someone is supporting him or her, becomes only a compilation of straight and curved lines, meaningless in its simplified existence.

And a signature, so valued and influential throughout history, becomes a scribble, only blue ink on paper without a beginning or an ending, meaning nothing (especially because most of the people don’t even know why they are signing the paper).

In summary: when an act is repeated over and over again, it loses its symbolic value. This holds for not only elections but anything that bears a symbolic value – from a signature to an act of kindness to a single word such as thank you.

But how to preserve that symbolic value?

See you next Thursday, readers, with some new thoughts and a reconnected, refreshed mind.

The Banana Peel and Other Observations

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The Unfortunate Notions From An Almost-Monthly Commute

1 One Angry Man

It’s Monday, 9.50 AM. I stand in the white snow waiting for the bus that will take me to another city further up North.

I hear a yell. It’s an angry, loud yell that turns into a furious, on-going rant. The person ranting is a middle-aged man with a hanging belly, built slowly during the years of heavy drinking. He’s mad at everyone and everything he sees and hears and most of all, he is angry at the world and the way the world has decided to organize itself.

I turn away and try to let his voice blend into the monotonous sounds of the traffic.

2 One Banana Peel

Fifteen minutes later, at 10.05 AM, I have taken my seat on the bus and begun my five-hour journey along the coast to a town I used to live in. Twenty-or-so minutes in, I notice a banana peel squeezed between the window and the seat in front of me. I’m amused and appalled at the same time. I wonder if it’s my duty to do something about the sad yellow thing that is categorized as bio waste: should I pick it up and take it to the trash can a few seats away from me? Or should I let it be but mention the peel to driver when I leave the bus?

Then I get curious and wonder why the banana peel is there in the first place. In my mind, I can see the chain of actions that led to this particular moment right here. How the previous passenger got hungry, ate the banana and then wondered where to put the peel. And how it clearly wasn’t a very rational thought to put it there, in-between the window and the seat where the driver wouldn’t find it and instead, it would stay there until it would begin to decompose and stink. Simply because a trash can wasn’t at the previous passenger’s arms reach.

I sigh. I sigh because of the stupidity of people, the laziness, the thoughtlessness of a human mind. And I think that it isn’t up to me to pick up the banana peel and throw it in the trash. I’m done pleasing other people, tired of being the doormat or the wallflower who does the chores no one else wants to do.

I consider myself lucky that the banana peel still seems to be pretty fresh and was  left there earlier today or yesterday.

3 One Visit to the Toilet

One-and-a-half hours into the ride and I need to pee. I stand up from my seat, walk down the stairs to the tiny toilet and do my business. After I’m finished I look around me. There’s no disinfectant to apply on my hands and neither does the water run so that I could wash my hands.

A few seconds of quick thinking and then: what else can a girl do than suck it up and be okay with germs for the rest of the ride?

I walk back up and return to my seat. During the next twenty minutes, I notice two others using the bathroom as well. As I observe them returning to their seats, I can’t help but think that I know for a fact that they haven’t washed their hands or applied any disinfectant. And because I know and I know that they know about this issue with germs, it’s as if we’re all in on the same, uncomfortable secret. Riding this bus isn’t the same anymore.

I wonder how long I should wait before finding the apple I have in my bag. I’m starting to get hungry. But the germs in my hands will then transfer to that apple which I will take a bite of and then the germs will get inside me.

Well. Maybe that’ll help me build up a better immune system?

Let’s hope for that.

4 Two Thoughts on Food

With 193 kilometers or 2 hours and 23 minutes left of my journey, I finally eat my apple, already forgetting about the germs. Funny, how priorities reorganize my mind. The sun is shining, finally, and the whiteness of the snow reflects the light back in a way that makes the world seem fresh.

In my own ears, the crunchy but juicy bites I take from my apple sound loud. But I know this to be an illusion: it is only I who thinks it’s loud but to the outside, it’s just the normal sound of chewing. A few years back, the fear of loud unboxing of sandwiches and noisy chewing kept me from eating while commuting but today I know better and don’t care anymore. Not after I realized that everyone else eats just as loudly as I do and I never hear them. So that’s that, and I reach to grab my sandwich packed in a noisy plastic wrapper.

I notice the man sitting in front of me. He’s eating a banana. It would be funny if he would try the same hiding trick as the previous passenger did and hide the peel in the same spot. Slowly but surely, a banana peel pile would have been created.

(By the way, try saying banana peel pile many times in a row. It’s fun and not at all difficult and might make you smile.)

5 Some End Notes

Suddenly, there’s only less than an hour left of the journey. Fifty minutes, to be precise. As we’ve moved more up the North, the clouds have taken over the sky and a grey heavy upper atmosphere promises snow for the night.

The good thing with this oh-so-long journey is that I’ve progressed in my reading. I listened to a few chapters of The Fountainhead, which was a pleasure, and continued to read The Secret History for an hour, digging myself deep into the crime-solving scenes of the second half of the book. I even listened to an episode of a podcast, which was an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. Her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love never made a lasting impression on me, but after listening to that episode I was really impressed by her positive attitude to life and how she devotes herself to every book that she writes.

The journey is coming to its end. I still have 49 minutes for my thoughts, a few moments to look out from the window and let my mind wander. I notice the amount of snow: there’s more here than in the South which isn’t really surprising. I wonder if the people who live here actually like living here, the long dark winters and the short Summers with almost never-ending sunshine. I would like to know what these people do and what they believe in.

Because, although I lived in this city for a year I wouldn’t want to move back. The city is too isolated, the winter too dark and cold, and the place in all its hopefulness doesn’t offer enough alternatives for me.

In this city I feel caged in with only a limited amount of possibilities. And I don’t like that.

Luckily, I will be sitting in this bus again tomorrow, now riding it in the reversed direction. I’m already looking forward to getting home.