Let’s kick it off slow. You hop on a bus, you sit down next to a friendly-looking stranger. What happens next?
Obviously, you gotta give that kind of broad question a weak “It depends”.
But, on what?
I’ve been thinking that small talk conversations can tell us a great deal about national rhythms and the struggle we have ahead of us at creating a global village of people who live in solidarity. They’re the interactions where we think the least and slip into a well known dance, our feet beginning to move when the music starts. We vibe with each other, linking up our humanity with another’s for a brief moment in time.
There’s a lot to learn about ourselves when we consider how we’ve been taught to dance that dance – what direction we should take with our inquiries, how long we should go on for, when we should back off or speed things up. They’re the moments that show how we make ourselves instantly vulnerable or build walls our neighbors can’t see over, how we empower or abuse identities.
Historian Benedict Anderson is on point in saying that we are part of imagined communities, that we dream up intangible connections with others but can’t check that those connections are real because we can’t personally meet all of the members of those communities. We enter into large societal constructs like NATION, RACE, TRIBE, RELIGION, GENDER, etc (the D7+, with a big emphasis on the plus) with fatalistic beliefs that they’re more meaningful than they are. But that conversation on the bus, that’s real. It elicits emotion; it leads to frustration, hatred, humiliation, comfort, laughter and love. It’s how we build community between living, breathing people and is all too often dismissed and overlooked.
So, what is this thing?
I don’t have much experience, but I’d like to share some conversations I’ve had in the USA and Indonesia in the past few years. As a caveat, I think about this topic a lot because of years of knowing and yet not acting to change the sequestered expat communities that I grew up in in West (Senegal/Ivory Coast) and Kenya. I am much more aware today than yesterday (a Bahasa Indonesian yesterday) of the oppression and racism that I perpetuated by my passivity; how little small talk I participated in before the age of 18 is a sign of that.
I went to university in Washington, DC. As a new student on a college campus, the introductory conversations I experienced were quite concise: 1. What’s your name, 2. Where are you from. I felt a bit assaulted by the abruptness and repetition of these introductions. That first month of college is a special time; the culture is open, warm like the month of August. It’s a time when it is acceptable to try people on like pairs of shoes, to immediately discard them when the fit isn’t right. For me, like for many, those conversations were awful to sit through, though for more than just the lameness of meeting a hundred people and not remembering a single name or the disappointment of ‘cinta monyet’ (“monkey love” in Bahasa Indonesia, the equivalent of puppy love in English) when I bored of a new friend after a week of strong crushing on each other.
That second question, of origin, is one that I, along with some quality friends, had been getting our best mocking laughs and snide comments ready for for quite some time, as we prepared to move to a more developed country to pursue our ‘higher’ education. “I’m not ‘from’ anywhere. “I’ve spent more time outside the country on my passport than in it.” “If I could, I’d pay my taxes to the UN.” While we probably wouldn’t frame things quite so arrogantly, our superiority complexes and egos at the self-awareness of our exoticism were ready to come out and get paraded around at all moments.
A friend who graduated from the same high school recently gave me his general account of how those first encounters went, and still go, for him in New Jersey:
Other Person: So, where are you from?
Me: Well, my family lives in Kenya.
OP: Cool, so you’re from Kenya, you speak really good English!
Me: I’m not from Kenya, but I lived there for 11th and 12 grade.
OP: So…where are you from?
Me: My parents are Nigerian, and I was born in Jersey.
OP: So, you left NJ at the end of 10th grade?
Me: No, actually, we left once I finished 4th grade, and we lived in a few other countries before Kenya.
My experience was pretty similar, and the repetition of it set me on a path to think very little of DC for the next few years and to think too much of the social injustices that the city is the perfect microcosm of. I realized right off the bat that power is not a result of merit, of knowledge acquired as one moves from the bottom up, but rather of network.
Looking back, I realize that a lot of my outrage at the ignorance of the average American about Africa blocked me from turning a critical eye on myself and at what I was doing. Through those conversations, I opened myself up like a book and waited for the other person to take the lead in turning the pages, speaking strictly in facts in a blasé fashion that I knew would be intriguing. I left gaps of information that begged for further questions (11th and 12th grade in Kenya – were you born a 16-year-old?) and then harshly criticized those who had no framework to work with for their ignorance (‘Yeah, I speak English ass wipe, Kenya is an English-speaking country’). I stuck to my guns, asking people to step up instead of leading them through the conversation. I always answered using the same measuring stick as the person I was interacting with – if they said they were from a town, I’d say Nairobi. If they said a country, I’d say Kenya all the while knowing that answering Africa would make things easier. I didn’t want to make things easy for anyone; I wanted to build a brick wall to bang Georgetown students’ heads against for the knowledge they should have had.
As I got into sophomore year, junior year, I took on the DC flow and the question of career was added to the mix as I ventured further out of DC. “What do you do?” became an instinct, one that is entirely revealing of DC’s norm to equate job title with human value. The Georgetown neighborhood had started to feel like a desert for small talk conversations, most probably as a result of my caustic demeanor. Most people just didn’t talk, unless there was a pretext for the conversation, and most interactions I had with strangers were clinical and polite as I was buying a bagel or cup of coffee. I found the biggest exception to this rule was within the communities of students of color on campus. I started to feel welcome when I picked up numerous waving relationships with a few people, but they confused me so much. I didn’t – and still don’t – consider myself a minority, my privilege rather befits that of a majority. I felt disrespected by the assumption that I was, not for racist reasons, but because I didn’t consider my racial identity much at all and had little background for what race meant in America. I obviously didn’t reject those waves – it’s natural to answer a smile with a smile. It was a great opportunity to meet a lot of people and I felt like those meetings were a bit more fluid and closer to what I was used to because they started at a point of familiarity. With a lot of white students, there was so much awkwardness, so much build up before finally admitting that we’d seen each other in Professor X’s class that morning and that that was a fact we could build a minute-long conversation around. At that point I wasn’t thinking much about being active in creating the community that I wanted to live in, so I left it at that.
The DC community began to redeem itself for me through a coffee shop in Eastern Market. One of my co-workers at Peregrine, who is blessed with an intelligence that fiercely whips those around her into shape, once recounted her encounters with activism in the city. She said that she used to be into it, but that when she realized that activists were more about the issues from a distance, and less about actively being good neighbors to those around them, she gave up and chose to focus on promoting community through her job or on her block. Hanging out at Peregrine gave me the worldly and laid-back first conversations befit of the city I had hoped to find as a 17-year-old. They often weren’t more than “good mornings”, comments about the weather, an inquiry about a batik I was wearing that would lead to realizing that a customer had gone to the same high school 10 years before I had. I was in a wildly different position, getting paid to build community, to be friendly. With just a little effort, I was beginning to become the type of citizen I had wanted to be, to be sharing knowledge freely and bumping into people I hadn’t imagined I’d bump into, without a thought to the accumulation of social power but as a result of sharing the day together.
At this point in time, I had also moved out to Columbia Heights, DC’s most racially mixed neighborhood with a population one third black, one third white and one third Latino. I had a lot more commuting time between Georgetown, Eastern Market and Columbia Heights and started applying what Peregrine had been teaching me to go out and create ‘good neighbor’ moments. I started a lot more (brief) conversations, usually about shared moments. I loved my home in Columbia Heights and felt invested in the neighborhood. I felt comfortable enough with my identity and the attention I got as a taller than average light skinned female to get what I wanted out of moments with strangers and interrupt moments that I saw that I didn’t agree with.
Fast-forward to April last year when I moved to Java, Indonesia, with the Peace Corps program and got some solid language training starting the day after I landed. I’m thankful I took a liking to Bahasa Indonesia because small talk occupies a different place in rural East Java than it did in Northeast USA. I haven’t traveled extensively in East Java yet (though more so than the average Javanese), but everywhere I’ve gone I’ve had a conversation that has been very close to the following:
“Mbak (miss), where are you coming from?”
“Grabagan, pak/bu (sir/ma’am).” The Bahasa Indonesia for “where are you coming from?” is the same as the shorthand for “where are you from”, so though I know I’m most likely being posed a question about my origins, I usually choose to answer with the name of last place I’ve been.
“What I mean is… where are you originally from?”
“I’m a mix between American and Congolese, a country in Central Africa.”
“But… you can speak Bahasa Indonesia? How come you’re fluent?”
People in rural Java are, in my experience to date, flat out incredible: generous, positive, warmhearted and caring. I’m wholly prepared for the possibility that I just don’t have the vocabulary to understand people’s negativity yet. As a result, I always feel like someone is building me up or taking care of me.
“I’m not fluent yet, but I can speak a little bit.”
“Where’s your house?”
“How long have you lived in Grabagan?”
“What are you doing there?
“I teach English at the public high school.”
“Do you feel at home?”
And on and on. We talk about our families, about how crops are doing and what news there is going around town, about who we might know in common, about what kinds of foods we like to eat, we answer each other’s questions about what’s available in the U.S. vs. on Java, etc.
At first, even the first “where are you coming from?” question (it’s polite to ask that or “where are you going?”) felt like an all-out assault. Where I was going/coming from was MY OWN BUSINESS. I felt extremely uncomfortable having to have these conversations, sweating non-stop under the unyielding Indonesian sun because I wanted to live out my belief that being an American was not something to be venerated. Which, it turns out, is just really self-centered on Java where basa-basi, small talk, is a guaranteed occurrence to show basic politeness.
Hearing about other Peace Corps volunteers’ experiences, a lot of them tired at not being understood past their one-of-these-isn’t-like-the-others appearance. Peace Corps likes to liken it to being treated like a celebrity and pretends like the burden is on the American who has to deal with the unending questions and attention, from person after person until all of the faces of the poor blend together in a mass of a single color, without name, unique thoughts or the capacity for an intellectual conversation.
For some time I had trouble with these conversations. As with the conversation in DC about being from Africa, I had a lot at stake personally and emotionally to hear people’s misunderstanding of places that I have had the great opportunity to get to know. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an act of injustice to not recognize the world’s great diversity and to doubt the sameness of humans whether they live in Tuban, East Java or Washington, DC. I began to retreat behind the exhaustion of repetition, the inkling that my identity would be exotic-ized again and the fear that the conversation would pitter out because I didn’t know how to relate to a farmer or a limestone driller because of my economic privilege. I didn’t know how to talk about why I had two iPods, an iPad and two laptops (being the last born has its benefits) in my room. Why I was going to this place and that place and then that other place. I wasn’t quite sure what kind of resentment I was asking for. At some point, my intention to understand my privilege turned into my mistrust of others to understand it as well. Or, maybe I stopped short of understanding it because I didn’t want to engage it when it became a living conversation. Certainly a very different genre of mistrust than in DC with the question of where I’m from – a lot more tail-between-my-legs quality as a person of privilege in an underprivileged community.
That last part, that’s not right. It feels right in conversation. But it reinforces the distance that constructs such as NATION, RACE, TRIBE, RELIGION, GENDER, etc. create. A white person acting shy and treading on thin ice in a conversation about race. A man feeling out of place in a conversation about feminism. A rich person talking to the poor about a love of travel. The silent distance leaves a colonial aftertaste and it keeps people on top in a comfortable place where they don’t need to be engaging their privilege actively to connect it to the plight of others. It erodes humanity.
At the end of it, I can’t actually get behind a prescription of always more small talk to strengthen ties between people. Sharing your humanity is a choice, and when it’s done as a chore rather than for the love of the other, it turns out stale. You don’t have to like other people or being into conversation. But if you maintain distance from someone on the assumption that you can’t connect, that’s racist. If you do it because you’re afraid of your own privilege, that’s a cop out.
And it depends on the small talk. So much of it maintains harmful patterns of exclusion. Continuing a cycle of harmful conversations that you know the steps to is unthinking and unacceptable. A friend who is recently divorced recounted to me the exclusion she was made to feel when her husband chose to leave her as she was getting her degree and keeping her family fed. Her neighbors all blamed her, saying that a Muslim woman was supposed to follow her husband. My friend places her religion at her core, so I can’t imagine how much those words hurt to hear.
But, it’s important to be cognizant that this is an effective and underused tool, one which can offer others their dignity in exchange for your own humanity.
So, you hop on a bus, you sit down next to a friendly-looking stranger. What should you make happen next? How much of your honest humanity are you willing to offer and how easily are you willing to receive.