Napkins

| April 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

This is a guest post by Jamie Lim. To submit a guest post to Culture Shock, see our ‘Write for Us’ page.


It was spring break and I was visiting Montreal with a few of my good friends. We got on the Metro one evening to head downtown when a seat opened up. I sat down, looked up and noticed that the woman sitting diagonally from me—plainly dressed and in her mid forties or so—was fighting to hold back tears, and then a minute or two later, could no longer keep from crying. She wept silently, wiping her eyes and cheeks crudely with her bare hands as a few others on the crowded train began to take notice. There was no sign of what sparked her tears.

My hands were already in my outer shell pockets, trying to stay warm. Inside my left were two clean napkins that I had kept from our lunch earlier that day. I was nervous that she might decline, leaving me to feel like I probably should just mind my own business, but leaned forward and offered her the napkins anyway. Without any hesitation, she took them with a barely audible “merci.” She used them to wipe her eyes and blow her nose, folding, unfolding, and refolding them, trying to find any remaining dry spots to use. I turned back to my friend for the rest of the ride, and talked to her about things completely irrelevant.

The train approached our stop and I stood up. In the five seconds that I waited in front of the door for it to open, I looked at the woman, barely but still crying, and we exchanged smiles.

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The doors opened, and I exited the train.
photo credit: deleted.scenes via photopin cc

Those moments were the most genuine that I had experienced for as long as I could remember. Our messages to each other were clear: my napkin said I’m sorry and I know that I don’t know you but I can see that you’re hurting and I wish that it didn’t have to, while, in return, her smile said a simple, gracious, thank you.

I think that these are the moments that we all live for—a connection between one person and another on a shared understanding of such a fundamentally human emotion it doesn’t even require words to be understood. This woman existed in my world for all but fifteen minutes, but our quiet interaction reminded me of what it means to be human: to be able to feel, not just for yourself but for even a complete stranger.

I am not saying that what I did was an act of uncommon kindness. I am confident that any other person sitting in my seat who conveniently happened to have a napkin in his or her pocket would have done the exact same thing. I was lucky to have something subtle to physically offer, and to be able to create that moment. But I think that we tend to forget that, most of the time, we actually always have something to offer.

A few summers ago I found myself at South Station staring down at blurry tracks as I tried, and failed, to suppress my tears. Like the woman in Montreal, I was upset about something that no one could visibly interpret. I pulled low my Red Sox cap, turned around, and headed back towards the T station. I had to cut through a line of passengers waiting to board another train near the platform I had been moping on, and as I did, I caught the eye of the woman in front of whom I had arbitrarily decided to cross. I think she had been watching me. She smiled. In that moment, it meant the world to me to know that there was someone that cared.

Connecting with a stranger is not easy. But when done with thought—courageously and unabashedly yet unobtrusively—it can be healing, and napkins become unnecessary.

We spent the rest of our time in Montreal seeing old friends, eating at great restaurants, drinking at delicious breweries and making more than a few trips to Tim Hortons. Where I remembered, I grabbed a few extra napkins. But even when I forgot, I knew that I had something better to share: myself.


Jamie is a senior at Boston University studying Human Physiology in Sargent College. He plans on pursuing a career dedicated to global health, and will be matriculating at the BU School of Medicine this fall. Before coming to Boston, Jamie lived in Tokyo, New York, Riyadh, and Singapore.

Featured Photo Credit: CameliaTWU via photopin cc

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