I believe a fundamental human longing is for connection. Most of us get this need met through friends and family, and sometimes we look for connection through brief interactions with strangers.
I guess I was wanting to connect with the elderly Japanese couple seated near me in the shade at an ancient temple in Ayutthaya, Thailand. It was warm and we all apparently wanted a respite from the heat. I gleaned they were Japanese from their son’s talking to them when he deposited them near me.
Reaching back into my college Japanese language course, I conjured up a greeting: “Ohio gazaimas!” I blurted in their direction. They looked a little startled that this tall, Caucasian woman was speaking Japanese to them in the middle of Thailand.
They responded in kind. After a pause, they asked me a question in Japanese, but I have no idea what. I guessed they asked where I was from, which is typical banter between tourists. “I’m from America. San Francisco.” I said thinking they would not recognize San Jose. The man repeated, “San Francisco.” “Hai” (yes), I responded — it was one of the few words I remembered.
They tried again, asking something, but I have no clue what. I could only shake my head and say, “Gomen’nasai” (I’m sorry).
We all nodded and smiled.
Five minutes passed before their son returned to fetch them. As they left, I called, “Sayōnara.” They smiled, waved and echoed my goodbye well wishes.
I wondered why I even started the conversation, knowing I couldn’t take it much beyond the initial pleasantry. Was I trying to show off that I knew any Japanese? If so, just who was I trying to impress? This elderly couple wouldn’t be impressed with my few-word vocabulary.
Upon reflection, I believe it was because I wanted to connect, thinking this couple must feel out of place in this strange country. Of course, for all I knew, they could have actually been Thailand residents. When I reached out, I had no idea if they spoke any English, but wherever I’ve visited a lot of people have at least rudimentary English skills, which far surpass my piddling foreign language skills.
I wanted, in some small way, to extend a hand of friendship. By their smiles, I think they appreciated my gesture. I know when I travel abroad, I appreciate it when someone extends a welcome to me.