Kindness of Strangers

It was getting dark one autumn evening in Okayama, Japan. I have just been from an international show where foreigners living in Okayama City have performed. I was in a hurry to go back to the dormitory, despite my friends’ suggestion that I go back with them, because I had to study for the test the next day. A kind Turkish student showed me the way to the train station (the Okayama Eki) where I can catch bus number 27 at Station number four. Seeing that it was just straight ahead, I walked on.

I arrived in front of the station in no time at all. To my dismay, there was no pedestrian line to cross to get to the bus station. I bowed to a Japanese old man, and, in my most polite memorized Japanese, asked him how to get to the station. He pointed the underpass to me. I descended as fast as I could, praying that I will catch the bus that will take me in front of our dorm. A bus that would pass the dorm was supposed to leave in twenty minutes. Getting through the underpass was very tricky .There were many stalls, booths, stores, name them; they were there. I looked around for some signs that I could recognize and found none. All signs were written in Kanji; they are Chinese characters which I could not understand. I didn’t know where to turn. There were eight flights of stairs each leading to a different direction. I took a wild guess and climbed the nearest flight of stairs. I reached the top and looked around for the buses. There were none. My heart began to pound. I realized I was lost.

What now? I thought. For the first time in my life I felt how helpless it feels not to be able to read, not to be able to speak a language well, and not to have a lot of money. All I have left in my wallet is a fare for a taxi but I was afraid to lose it as well because I did not even know what to say to a taxi driver. I felt terribly tired and hungry and thirsty all at once. I was afraid that I might not be able to go back to the dorm. My throat ached and my eyes burned. Nevertheless, I held my tears, determined not to look stupid amidst the throng of people who were busy trying to get home. After all, I was in Japan and must keep my emotions in check. I went down the stairs thinking of going back where I came from.

I walked on and on in circles in the underpass again and eventually went up another set of stairs. Those stairs led to a bus stop across the station where a young man of about eighteen sat on a nearby bench while eating a sandwich. I forgot the usual Japanese courtesy of apologizing first before bothering someone, and immediately grabbed his arm and told him rapidly that I am a foreign student; that I am lost, that I have to go to bus station number four and that he has to help me. Fortunately, my scanty Japanese was enough to say those words. He was surprised to say the least. No one would ever grab the arm of a complete stranger who was eating, even if it was just a sandwich. He did not attempt to remove his arm from my grasp but instead told me, as gently and slowly as he could, that he, too, was a stranger there. He went there to visit his friend and he has to catch the next bus bound for Tottori, a province five hours away. After a short pause, he added that his bus will be there in about five minutes.

I started to cry then telling him that I want to go home and he has to help me because no one else might. I think a girl’s tears can still move a man because he relented and said that he will help me. Just then the bus that he was waiting for stopped in front of us. I tightened my hold on his arm afraid that he might change his mind. The door opened and out came the conductor. It seemed that they know each other because the conductor immediately rapped some words to him while looking at me. They had a brief talk and finally the conductor nodded and then waved.

The bus left and I felt a pang of remorse. I asked him how will he go home, but he just shrugged and said that he can take the next bus which will come after two hours. He smiled reassuringly and said that there is plenty of time for him to help me. It was then that I realized why he hesitated to help me: he did not know how to use the underpass himself so that he even called up his friend to ask for directions. I held on to his left arm, still afraid that I might let go of it and get lost among the throng of passers-by. It did not take him long to know which flight of stairs to take. Of course, he could read Kanji.

We ascended a flight of stairs, with his arm still in my grasp, and then I felt a great wave of relief. There, standing in line with other would-be- passengers, was the old lady I talked to when I rode a bus when going to the show earlier that afternoon. I was so overjoyed that I hugged the old woman who was as surprised as the young man had been. He talked to her, I think he told her what had happened to me because she patted my hand and made soft remarks. Perhaps he asked her if she was sure that I would be taking the right bus because she repeatedly nodded. I was so relieved and grateful that I would be able to go back that I even forgot to ask the name of my rescuer. As it should, the number 27 bus came. It came too soon enough for me to be able to ask him what his name and address was since I spent most of that time just thanking him and bowing deeply. My gratitude was left unsaid.

The last time I saw him, he was standing there in the station waving at me, smiling, though with a still worried look on his face. I smiled at him through my tears (I would miss him!) and waved and waved until he was out of sight. I have not seen him since then, although, every day I have tried to look for his face among the Japanese young men I met in Okayama. I knew that I would recognize his face anywhere. But I have came back from Japan since then and still I have not seen him again so that I decided to repay him by being kind to the strangers I meet whenever I can. After all, like what he has demonstrated; kindness transcends everything, even strange faces and strange languages.

► About the Author:
Ms. Maria Claudette Caluban teaches Chemistry and Scientific Research at Catanduanes National High School, Virac, Catanduanes. She's been a teacher trainee in Japan (Okayama University and Naruto University of Education) under the Monbukagakusho Scholarship.

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