Nice to Meet You
I grew up in America. Early on and for many years when traveling overseas, I was surprised by how nice most people were towards me, no matter where in the world I was. I used to wonder, particularly if I was in a country where I knew America had taken some action in (code word for military action), “Why are they being nice to me? Don't they realize my country has done something bad to their country?”
Fairly or unfairly, I imagined that if the shoe was on the other foot, some Americans wouldn’t be so nice towards people from countries who had done bad things to America. Of course, I was happy that 99%+ of the people I met were nice and eventually, I stopped wondering except on rare instances.
One day, while I was waiting for a bus in Cape Town, a man and woman got out of a taxi and came to wait at the bus stop too. At the time, I was only a few months into this long traveling journey. I made it a point to strike up conversations every day with anyone I thought might be interesting. I did not want to go a day or even days without talking with others or only talking when ordering food or buying a bus ticket. I walked over to him as he was sitting on the bench. “Excuse me, Where are you from?” “I'm from Libya.” I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, I don't think I've ever met anyone from Libya before.’, which excited me.
Before my excitement subsided, he asked me where I was from. Quickly, my mind raced to the realization that the country I was from had recently led a bombing of Libya, basically destroying the country, causing a civil war to start, and chaos and anarchy to reign. In another nanosecond, my mind remembered the occasional advice I'd been given about what to say in certain situations when it might be better to not mention where I was from. Someone told me, they say they are from North America, in the hopes of leaving the asker to wonder if that meant Canada or the US. And a few might include the Caribbean countries or Central America in which case that would give me even more cover. I suspect, my accent would keep the list short, though. I went for it, rolling the dice, putting it all on black and said, “America”, while realizing my feet were moving slightly back from the bench.
A palpable change in energy surged through the man and I thought I saw steam coming from the top of his head as he said, “Your country destroyed my country! That is why I am here now. I had to leave my country because of what your country did.”
“I hope you don't think I had anything to do with that,” I blurted out while steeling myself for exactly what, I didn’t know.
From 15 feet away, the woman giggled and said, “Of course not. We know you are just a citizen and your government is the one who does such things.” I don’t remember much else of the next few minutes as we continued to wait for the bus. I just felt awful for the guy. And wondered what role, if any, I played in what was happening to his country. The bus came. I got on, found an aisle seat towards the front. He sat in the seat directly in front of me.
As this was the first me I was taking this bus and was in an unfamiliar area, not sure how long it would take to get to my stop, I was trying to focus on the child-like paper bus route map someone had given me.
A few minutes in, he and his companion got up to get off the bus. He stood up, body fully erect facing the front of the bus exit, his back to me. In an almost military-like fashion he turned around toward me and held his hand out to shake mine. It was a very firm shake. I sensed another surge of energy from him. Perhaps he worked something out inside himself.
And me too. Though I still don’t know what that might be.