On the Kind & Selfless Acts of Strangers

I find it rare to come across selfless acts of kindness from strangers. Some would say it’s because I’m an East-coast bred American— a Philadelphian no less— and the fussiness of my environment, combined with an urban-millennial tunnel vision, blocks my view and makes me nonchalant. But I’m a pretty observant guy who practices mindfulness, so I’m not sure this is the case. I think these selfless acts are happening far too infrequently. I mean, sure you might see someone hold the door for an elderly woman or help a blind man maneuver through a throng of coffee craving salary workers. You might even see a determined driver break for the safe crossing of a mother duck and her brood. But these acts have more to do with common courtesy. Help for your fellow man (or animal) in need. That’s not what I’m after here. I’m talking about a person making a stray observation and then going out of his way to improve the life— or, sensationalism aside, experience— of another. Pointing someone in the right direction is an expected courtesy, forgotten in two seconds; walking the person to their destination is the selfless act that creates a lasting memory. Do you follow?

Perhaps I should give some examples to better illustrate my point. A ton of experiences come to mind, but for now, I’ll focus on three.

A friend and I walk around Old Jaffa in Tel Aviv, admiring and taking photos of all the amazing graffiti and street art we’d come to expect of the city’s side streets. A local Israeli guy, standing in his doorway smoking a cigarette, runs over to us. A pug wearing a diaper follows him. Defaulting back to my experiences at home— homeless begging and psychotic haggling— I’m on high alert. Hello. Are you artists? he asks. We smile politely, say no. He switches gears. You like this kind of art then, huh? We say yes. Where are you from? he asks. Before we can respond, he answers his own question: New York, yes? He smiles, genuinely. I’m still reticent, but my guard begins to drop. Close, we say, and proceed to tell him Philly & Jersey respectively. He’s impressed with himself for being spot on region wise, and continues his inquiry by asking what prompted us to visit Israel. We give him the abridged version: we were curious and wanted to come, so we did. He laughs, takes a drag from his cigarette, then smiles. Let me show you something cool! He hurries off down the street. The pug waddles behind loyally. He stops at a mechanics shop. Is he trying to sell us an old Vespa? Excited, he walks in, says something to the owner in Hebrew and exits with two thumbs in the air: permission granted. We look on with curiosity as he laboriously proceeds to roll back the massive door to the storefront. It looks like a struggle, so I ask if he needs help. He gestures no and keeps at it, slowly unveiling the stunning portrait of a woman in a Venetian mask. He takes a step back to admire the art with us. He looks over to gauge our reactions. I’m stunned, not just at the art, but by this stranger’s willingness to engage, by the graciousness he has shown. We ask if the artwork is his. It’s not. I could never do anything as beautiful, he says. It’s just something he appreciates and admires, and thought we might too. We engage in small talk, mainly about Tel Aviv’s art scene, until we notice the pug, squatting in its diaper. We share a laugh. My guard is down.

Rolling back a heavy door for the big reveal.

Rolling back a heavy door for the big reveal.

On that same trip, my friends and I decide to take advantage of the beautiful weather and walk from our Florentin neighborhood to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. We are not entirely sure how to get to our destination on foot, but that does not stop us. While we have wifi, we google map it. 3.8km. A 47 minute walk. We keep the directions on the iPhone screen for reference. Somewhere along the way, though, we realize the map has gone crazy without wifi, and now we are lost. Instead of wasting precious time, we decide to ask a stranger for directions. The stranger, a nice man we would come to know as Boaz, decides to forgo getting lunch to walk us to our destination. We ask if he’s going our way. No, he says, but the day is lovely and you need help, so I don't mind. We’re taken aback— we tell him he does not have to waste time on us, but he insists. Again, my radar sounds, but I remember the street art guy: are people really just that nice here? It's hard for me fathom, but we've got a museum to get lost in. So we go. Boaz gives us a guided tour along the way. He covers a wide range of subject matter as we stroll, from the German occupation and Bauhaus architecture, to FAQ’s about the stunning Tel Aviv cinematheque and renovation of Sarona Market. He becomes a translator and then waits patiently out of frame when we are stopped and photographed by an Israeli sartorial blogger. He slips directly back into tour guide mode once the impromptu photo shoot is done. It takes us longer than anticipated to get to the museum, but the experience of meeting a local, learning a little about him and his day-to-day, and about some of the city’s rich history is worth every additional minute. We get to our destination. It’s time to part ways. We offer to buy him lunch. He smiles and declines. It was my pleasure, he says. A welcomed detour from the usual. He thanks us for indulging him; we gesture for a selfie. He obliges, and then goes about the rest of his day.

I’m sure everyone knows about Japan’s huge culture of respect. And if you’ve been to Japan, it’s likely you have an anecdote similar to the one I am about to share. My story may seem slightly dramatic, but chances are, your story is too. It is 2009 and I am living in Akasaka, the residential and commercial district in Minato, Tokyo. I love my neighborhood because of its access to good supermarkets, shops and restaurants, and its proximity to Roppongi, Shinjuku and Shibuya. My apartment is nestled on a hill, on a side street anchored by a konbini (convenience store) that I visit just about daily. On one occasion, during typhoon season, I slip into the store to pick up a few items. As Tokyo requires a lot of walking, a bottle of water and my iPod are staples. This day is no different. Upon gathering the items I intend to purchase, I place them on the counter to checkout. I hand over my money, perform customary pleasantries and leave the store. On my way out, I take my umbrella from the stand and turn the volume up on my iPod. I make my way out into the pouring rain, turn the corner and schlep up the hill to my apartment. I climb the stairs and take out my key card. A high-pitched, unfamiliar voice makes it way into the Flying Lotus track I’m vibing to. Sumimasen, it says. I’m confused. I shake out my umbrella and attempt to close it. Again, the voice calls out. Sumimasen!! Who is that, I think to myself. I turn around reflexively and remove an earbud from one ear. An old woman appears through the pouring rain. She is out of breath, and soaked to the bone. Sumimasen, she says again, urgently. Anata no mizu!!  She bows and extends a half-empty bottle of Suntory mineral water before her. I’m shocked. But as my confusion subsides, I realize I am looking at the cashier from the konbini. I must have left my water behind. I bow in gratitude immediately, and open my umbrella to shield her from the rain. Hai!, I say. Arigatō gozaimashita. I stand on the step humbled and in awe. Iie, iie.  itashimasite, she says and smiles. Droplets of water fall from her fringe and splash against her nose. I return the smile, take the water from her and bow once more. I attempt to give her my umbrella— I have another upstairs— but she waves her hand in front of face with a smile, a gesture that means No, thank you. Of course she would decline. I thank her again, and she hurries off down the hill, back to work.

I’ve heard stories from my foreign friends about nice gestures they’ve experienced in America, like being offered a snack on a long bus trip, or given a recommendation or two by a local that would enhance their experience. I can’t help but wonder, however, if experiences like the ones I shared above could happen here. Is it culturally possible? If not, why? I recall a specific day during my time working in a high end retail store. After making a purchase, a customer absentmindedly leaves her frappuccino on the counter, just like how I left my water behind at the konbini. The whipped cream is still fluffy against the lid— she possibly sipped it twice. My coworker takes one look at the venti caramel frap with whip; he shrugs and without second thought, throws it away. I guess she didn’t want that, he says. She does want it, however— she returns to the store moments later, out of luck.

I’ve witnessed a lot of experiences just like that in my lifetime. People acting presumptively instead of thoughtfully; becoming annoyed and inconvenienced by an inquiry instead of acting with patience and being accommodating. As a traveler, I am often in positions where I know only a handful of phrases and communication is difficult. Where knowing the location— and existence!— of a local eatery can save me money that can be put toward a future experience. I am always gracious and humbled when I can connect with or be acknowledged by a local in a meaningful way. Perhaps, as a result, I am sensitive to noticing kind acts as well as snubs. I’d like to think that these selfless acts of kindness from strangers are not an anomaly in my home country, and that perhaps they’re happening all the time directly under my nose. And I’d like to think everyone has had experiences akin to what I described above— not just in their travels, but in their every day lives.

Thinking about actions and affirmations with pure intent— sharing something with someone else or doing something to make a person's experience easier, no strings attached— brings me joy. And I suppose the only thing I can do to ensure the cycle continues is pay it forward.