I climbed into the passenger seat of my Lyft ride and was immediately welcomed by the hefty gust of the heater blasting in my face. As we were en route, I briefly commented on the bone-chilling weather. A simple, small comment gradually developed into a lighthearted conversation about the warmth and food in California and the subtle beauties of Ithaca from a local’s perspective. My driver’s face lit up as she talked about her childhood growing up in Ithaca, reflecting on the coldest winter days where she would always go sledding with her friends and family. She recommended the circular sled because it would spin in all directions, transforming a simple slide into an exhilarating twirl. As we approached the destination, we ended our chain of interaction on the appreciation for Doc Marten boots.
The young woman next to me was no longer just my Lyft driver, but a proud and passionate Ithaca local with a relatable and adventurous childhood. A simple yet warm conversation melted the untelling, lifeless job title that disguised the main character of the stories and the stories themselves. Taking the time to reflect on my recent interactions with strangers and peers, I’ve realized even more now than ever just how precious communication is.
I’ve always been something of an introverted hermit, afraid to extend beyond my quiet, reserved shell. If I stayed silent, I knew I would be safe and comfortable. I wouldn’t blurt out or stutter. There would be no mistakes if nothing was said in the first place. Everything would be perfectly easy, and I would be just fine. The person before me, the custodian, the barista or the librarian would be “just another person,” indistinguishable from the rest.
After years of reserved silence, from patiently waiting for all the groceries to be scanned to calmly listening to the radio music in the car, I began to wonder. What’s daily life like? Favorite pastime activities? Hometowns? Questions like these floated around in my mind, and I came to the realization that the unique answers to these icebreaker-like questions opened up ample opportunities to explore hidden mysteries I could never experience for myself. There are so many layers and levels to every person, but if I kept to myself, I would’ve been stuck living in a one-dimensional world.
So I started saying hi. I began saying “Hello! How was your day?” to the people in my daily life, and these shy greetings transformed into mini-conversations to passionate discussions on relatable subjects. And just like that, the world became tremendous and limitless. The unique experiences, opinions and perspectives I learned from others shaped the way I see people, the way I view the world and the way I live.
And just at Cornell, I’ve met countless incredible individuals, each with their own stories to tell. One of my professors came from the same hometown as me, and we would talk about the glories of Berkeley and its mountainous terrain. My boss and I talked about our artsy families and shared our favorite media (we both enjoy graphic design and watercolor). The repairman described his year spent in Korea in 2006 while adding the final magic touches to bringing my laptop back to life. A close friend would also spend hours over dinner with me, and we would tell each other one wild story after another without even noticing the time fly by as the once-bustling restaurant grew quiet. Listening to some of these stories took me on a nostalgia trip, while others took me to a whole new domain. But all in all, these conversations created a powerful emotional connection that made life even more interesting.
In college, individuals come from all over the world — from different backgrounds and in pursuit of different aspirations, or sometimes from the same backgrounds with similar passions. That’s what I love the most about college, especially at Cornell. Surrounded by thousands upon thousands of passionate and proactive peers, each with a life of unique hardships and sentimental memories, college is a place where learning occurs not just on the academic level, but at the most personal and intimate level.
It all started with simple interactions, where meaningful relationships formed, and the strangers were no longer strange. The individuals who were otherwise identified by their role in society became characters with charisma, personality and passions. The person developed into a name, a face, a voice, a laugh and a signature. The beauty of such an interaction, however little or large, is the transformation into a human being.
In the larger scheme of things, it’s become even more imperative that we at least appreciate the depth of one another’s identities and foster this sense of basic human empathy. Social labels, physical characteristics, race/ethnicity and disabilities seem to be some openly recognized categories that ultimately identify us and group us off into smaller, segregated chunks. We’ve come to accept these thick lines and clear distinctions; we’ve become fixated purely on our differences without taking the first step in blurring such boundaries.
We may have different cultural values, religious beliefs or political perspectives, but we all cherish and crave the same deep emotional fulfillment. We may struggle differently, but nonetheless, we struggle. We may have different humor, but nonetheless, we laugh. We may survive and live differently, but nonetheless, we survive and live. We have differences and society has labels, but we’re all still a part of the same humanity.
The strangers in life, the shadows of society and the walking bodies became close companions, fellow enthusiasts and influential role models, and it all started with a little hello.
Alexia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. Who, What, Where, Why? runs every other Friday this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.