Random Acts of Kindness

Complaints roll effortlessly off the tongue. When I was talking to my family the other night, I realized about 20 minutes into the conversation that all I had done was tell them about the negatives in my life.

I had whined about the three ant colonies that act like they own my apartment. I had griped about the challenges of switching to a six-day working week, while all the normal housework simultaneously requires more time because we don’t have a washing machine, a dishwasher, or a vacuum cleaner. I even went on about my fashion woes; I question whether I’m dressing properly in Indian clothing. For you Harry Potter fans out there, it was recently brought to my attention that perhaps my efforts to dress in Indian clothing are comparable to the wizards in Harry Potter attempting to dress like muggles.

But anyway, because complaining is so easy to do, I found myself completely misrepresenting my life here, and this is crazy, because despite the challenges thus far, I really like living in Chennai.

Since arriving, I’ve been repeatedly overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity I have experienced not only from colleagues, new friends and acquaintances, but also from perfect strangers.

Stranger #1:

There is a woman who sits on a corner near my house each day selling strings of jasmine blossoms. On a whim, I decided that I wanted to buy some flowers to wear in my hair, which is something that many of the women here do. I handed the flower woman my money and she handed me the string of jasmine blooms. I continued down the street on my way to work, pondering how to attach the flowers through my ponytail without smashing them. Apparently my confusion was expressed via my body language, because another woman who sits outside a neighborhood temple selling items for people to give as offerings motioned for me to come over. She then mimed putting the flowers in my hair, and started to fish through her box and pulled out a bobby pin, motioned for me to squat down, and then she pinned the flowers in my hair.

It would have been easy for her to not do anything and let me continue down the street. Instead, she brightened my day by her wordless act of kindness.

Stranger #2:

The other night, Guy and I were trying to get home after an afternoon with some friends and an early evening visit to Marina Beach in Chennai. Now that the streets of Chennai are slowly starting to become more familiar, we’ve been trying to take the bus more and autos less. However, even with the increasing familiarity of the streets, the bus routes are still mostly unknown to me.

We walked from the beach to a bus stop with traffic heading in the direction of home. I asked a woman if she knew which bus would be headed toward Nungambakkam (the district where we live). She did not, but in Tamil asked the question of the man next to her, who then asked the man standing next to him.

This third man came over and told us we would need to take bus 27D to Egmore (another district) and then from there, catch 17D back down to Nungambakkam. I repeated this to him to verify my understanding, and he confirmed. I thanked him for his help, and he said he would also go on bus 27D. I smiled and said, “Oh, OK, we’re going the same way, great!”

We rode for about 15 minutes and the man told us we were nearing Egmore. He pointed out where we needed to walk to catch our next bus. We got down and thinking this was his intended stop, I thanked him again for his help and started to say goodbye. He said he would take us to the stop. I said he didn’t need to, that I thought we could find it, but he insisted. So we followed him down the busy street to our next stop.  We chatted while waiting and learned that he was in his seventies, he’d been a defense officer, he had lived all over India, and he has two kids living and working in the United States. At this point, bus 17D pulled up, and to my surprise, the man got on with us! He again made sure the conductor knew where he wanted to go. And then I heard him tell the conductor he would go to Ashok Nagar.

It was at this point that I realized this man had gone well out of his way to see perfect strangers home. And additionally, he hadn’t made a big deal about his random act of kindness.

It is possible there was a faster or cheaper bus route, but we did make it home. And once again, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of a stranger who expected absolutely nothing in return.

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