by Faith Hoyt—
I feel fortunate to have traveled to several countries where I was immersed in different languages—and though some attempted conversations were a complete mystery, others needed no translation.
When I was 21 years old, I travelled to Taipei, Taiwan, with a group of eighth-grade students on a class trip. It was an incredible opportunity. Our trip took educational excursions and enjoyed some fun sightseeing (including visiting the Taipei Zoo, where a portion of the movie Life of Pi was filmed). The easiest way around the city was via the Metro station. Each day we made our way to the subway and navigated the maze of rails to destinations around the city.
One afternoon on our way back from the Taipei Zoo, our somewhat rowdy group (students, teachers, and volunteers) crowded ourselves into a corner of the train while sharing our delight at having managed to squeeze into the last available group for panda viewing. Soon we settled down, the motion of the train lulling us into sleepy trances.
In my sleepy state, I started paying casual attention to my immediate surroundings. I noted the contrast between my experience riding BART into San Francisco and the subways in Taipei. It felt a little like the difference between a concert and a library. On the Taipei subway, there was an unspoken code of conduct that everyone adhered to. Younger people were quick to give up their seat for older travelers. Young children rode the subways by themselves in safety. Everyone kept their noise and their persons to themselves.
While I was looking about, I noticed a cluster of three older women sitting across from us and to our left. I realized that they were observing my group with mild discomfort—though not the kind that makes a person feel unwelcome. Something was amiss. I sat and watched them for a full minute out of the corner of my eye as they continued leaning in, speaking softly in Mandarin or Taiwanese Hokkien, with slight nods of their heads indicating agreement. I looked around for a clue. Suddenly, it dawned me. Each side of the subway trains were lined with plastic benches with three dips in each bench. I looked to the cluster of three women, each sitting in their respective dip. Then I looked down at where I was perched on the edge of a bench. Aha!
I stood up and moved to the left where a row of benches sat empty. The second my backside sat squarely in the dip, each of the women now sitting directly across from me sat up straight and nodded their heads in approval. I received warm looks from each of them—big smiles which I returned. I laughed a little to myself. It felt oddly fun. What first seemed like gossipy attention was really concern for my safety and the general order of that subway ride. These women were the self-appointed safeguards of that Metro, and that community.
I wish all expressions of concern went as well as this interaction apparently did. I sometimes hear people share their frustration over chastisement from someone in their church. Someone who went out of their way to point out an error of some sort. Not subtle, gentle, and out of genuine concern like the women on that Taipei subway (though perhaps the language barrier saved me a little distress). When I hear stories of overt and hurtful “correcting” it makes me cringe. I know there are ways of expressing care and concern that result in understanding and inspire belonging rather than making one feel judged and ostracized.
Those three Taiwanese women managed to get me up and into the right seat without making me feeling accosted by judgment. The warmth on their faces once I was safely in my own seat revealed their relief. The point isn’t that I changed my seat, but rather that this subtle interaction helped me understand—and feel part of—a community, instead of feeling like a nuisance or a problem. You know what I think? Looks can heal, too.
Faith Hoyt is communication intern for the Pacific Union Conference. She lives in Carson City, Nevada, and attends the Heavenly Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Lake Tahoe.