This essay originally aired on December 7, 2017.
On a crisp day in October, I was on my daily walk through the Arboretum at Penn State. I had discovered my passion for photography there, and I was on a mission to photograph the roving gangs of chipmunks devouring the decorative pumpkins and gourds the Arboretum puts out at this time of year.
Suddenly, a stranger approached me. And immediately I thought, “Ugh. Go away. What do you want?” I thought about pulling out my cell phone to act busy. A gut, automatic reaction.
He was a Middle Eastern man in his 40s or 50s. He wore dark black sunglasses and had a trimmed mustache with tufts of grey throughout. He complimented me on my camera. I thanked him and told him I get lots of good pictures.
“What makes a good picture, in your mind?” he asked, in a thick accent. It was a sort of poetic question that caused me to lower my defenses. I said, “When I get things just right, I don’t even need to look at the photo. I just know I got a good one.”
Our conversation continued from there. He talked about being an immigrant in America, and how different the culture is. He talked about how strange it was that we were having a conversation at all. “People in America don’t make eye contact,” he said. He said that’s why everyone in America seems to hate one another right now—because we don’t talk to each other. We don’t understand each other. And we hate and fear what we don’t understand.
“But,” the man said, “if we all stopped and spoke to strangers on the street, and learned about one another, we wouldn’t be strangers any longer.” I told him that in America, we were once meant to believe we are all made stronger by our differences. We seem to have forgotten that. To that point, he said of the Arboretum, “If they only planted one kind of tree, or one kind of flower, then you’d be taking some fairly boring photographs.” We laughed.
Two complete strangers with, at first, seemingly nothing in common—a red-headed, white, gay guy in his 20s with a passion for photography, and a middle-aged Middle Eastern immigrant who is a bit of a chatterbox—had a wonderful, meaningful conversation about our lives. My conversation with this man didn’t cost me anything, and it didn’t change my beliefs or values. But it shook me. It made me feel, suddenly, very different about strangers. Especially since the presidential election, I’ve avoided strangers—I’m not as gregarious or friendly as I used to be. I came very close to avoiding the man at the Arboretum. But I now see that every stranger I pass has a story, and that we are all part of a greater American community. We can all learn something from each other.
Try it sometime—strike up a conversation, or be open to one, with a complete stranger. I believe that we would all be better for it.
Essayist Jason Traverse is events coordinator for the African American Studies department, African Studies program, and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies department in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts.