We live in small worlds. Despite the opportunities for connection that our modern age affords, we each—stubbornly—still occupy such a tiny little bubble in the sea of humanity. I’ve glimpsed too many of these worlds to count: the man taking his buffalo for a walk at dusk in Vietnam; the woman making noodles from scratch in the mountains of Japan; the sisters gathering firewood under a tamarind tree in India…
The biggest honor in traveling has been the ability to pass through other people’s bubbles. I can’t go undetected, but sometimes being an outsider—whose presence is fleeting, and who doesn’t speak the language—allows me a particularly honest peek into their lives.
Last spring I crossed western Japan on a slow, local train. Bullet trains are fun, but the ones that stop at every station are much cheaper, and you have the privilege of joining people on their day-to-day journeys. This particular train filled up fast with kids coming home from school. My once peaceful train car suddenly became the world of school children: sharing gossip, bouncing off the seats, and elated that school was out. Some smiled and giggled at the foreigner, but most were too focused on their own important world. One girl, however, did not share their excitement. She found a spot by the door next to me—facing the wall, eyes to the floor—and quietly sobbed. She brought back a rush of memories from my own childhood. It was a lifetime ago, but my feelings of isolation, pain, social awkwardness and, above all, hopelessness—they all came back to me. If only I’d known back then about all the brilliant worlds I’d one day come to discover.
I don’t speak much Japanese, and I knew the spotlight of a conversation would have only made things worse. But I had an idea! I carried with me a few cards I had illustrated, to use as thank-yous during my travels. Quickly, before the next stop, I got one out and wrote the only thing I could think of that was simple, honest, and that I knew for certain to be true: “Things will get better, I promise!” I tapped her on the shoulder and handed her the card. Wiping her eyes, she responded with a courteous bow of the head and a crooked smile, and disappeared off the train.
Although the connection we made was only momentary, I like to think it was more memorable than whatever brought her to tears that day. And while I know I didn’t solve her problems, I hope that by reaching out of my own bubble, her world felt a little bit bigger and a little bit kinder.