“Don’t talk to strangers”, “Be careful of people who approach you on streets”…. and so it goes on, the list of proverbial sayings and what our parents used to always tell us when we were kids. Of course, there are certain truths and wisdom behind these age-old words, as demonstrated by lessons learnt in even the simplest tales such as the Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, etc. However, sometimes I wonder if we’re sticking to these words just a little bit too much.
About a year ago, in the gym at Columbia, a Chinese girl around my age accosted me in the girls’ locker room. Judging from her appearance and manner of speaking, I deemed her to be a Chinese international student at the graduate school.
“You always walk around with this guy. He is your husband, isn’t he – on campus?” Her voice had a bouncy quality to it.
“Yes… Do you know him?” I had no idea how she knew me, but I smiled anyway.
“No… But I’ve seen you guys around quite a lot!” There was something mirthful about her speech and movement.
“My roommate has seen you two as well. We actually thought that, from the way you walked together and interacted with each other, you looked like an old married couple, but we then thought that it couldn’t be – you’re so young! But just now, I saw that…” She looked down at my wedding ring, “So you actually are married!”
“I didn’t know that anyone would notice me walking around the campus…” I said with surprise, “I usually don’t hang around campus, I mean, I just walk through it to get to my apartment… And we – he and I – actually haven’t been married for that long…” It took me a while to stop my blabbering, “But wait! How come you remember us?”
“Well I recognized you right away when you came to the gym.” She laughed, “I just started coming to gym. So you might not have seen me here before. Hi, I’m Zhen!”
“I’m Xiao, it’s really nice to meet you!” I held out my hand, still amazed.
So it turned out that we both wanted to run on the treadmill, so we did a bit of chatting while we were doing that, though a bit breathless. As I thought, she is an international student from China, studying engineering at Columbia graduate school. She said that she recently moved so she wanted to make friends. But since schoolwork has kept her busy, she has grasped every opportunity to make friends, trying to meet new people wherever she goes.
“That’s really amazing!” I was truly impressed. I’ve always admired people who do whatever they can to reach out to strangers.
When I arrived home that day, I was still thinking about my conversation with Zhen and how her friendliness had left an impact on me. I was not in such a good mood earlier, but now my bad mood was swept clean because of her.
When I told my friends about my encounter with her, however, I was disappointed at their inability to share my excitement of making a new friend.
“I’m sorry… but that’s just really weird to make friends with someone like her in the gym, who recognized you from campus,” They said. I, on the other hand, could not understand their concerns. I guessed that if I met her at a social networking event or something, then it wouldn’t be considered “weird” at all. I was even a bit frustrated at my friend who thought that I need to meet people in the “right” place.
I’ve met some of my most long-lasting friends under very random or even strange situations. Though sometimes our paths never crossed after a certain time period, we still kept in touch and valued our shared memories. Having always been a believer in “yuanfen” (serendipity), I really think that as long as they treat their newfound friendship with care and sincerity, it doesn’t matter where people meet. For example, Zhen and I kept in touch throughout the past year, exchanging ideas about exercise and fitness. From her I received valuable advice and encouragement. For me, it’s valuable friendship that I plan to keep. Now that I’m in Hong Kong and haven’t seen her for a while, we still keep contact by texting. On a final note, To those who think we can only meet the “right” kind of people at the “right” places, I can only suggest, “Don’t set up rules for yourself like that, because it may limit you in many ways, and you may be missing out on some good people!”
Xiao Fu is a writer and English teacher based in New York City. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.