This is How to Talk to a Stranger

Nonfiction by | May 4, 2014

Talk to a StrangerYou are seventeen.

In the Bachelor Bus from Tagum, third to the last two-seat row, you are seated behind a man in his late 60s. He says something, but his breath that smells like he hasn’t been brushing his teeth for several days now disturbs you.

He says it again: Kamusta ka? (How are you?)

The utterance of the two-word Tagalog greeting signals a sincere effort. You can’t decide whether he has a British or American accent. It is somewhat a combination of both. His face doesn’t help you recognize his nationality either, just the prominent nose at least. You look at him more closely as if to help you assess. He is a tall man. You can tell by how his feet struggle with his black back pack on it in the space given on the rest. He tries to move his legs once in a while. He wears a black beret, a yellow polo shirt, checkered Bermuda shorts, and black sandals. Quite a color combination, you think.

As if willing to play against your ignorance, he greets you again with a more obvious effort. You find it hard to resist the charm of his eagerness to start a conversation when he displays a smile that reveals a white set of teeth. You wonder why he has bad breath.

Looking at his green eyes, you remember the 7th season American Idol runner-up you have been crushing on for years. You smile. The stranger takes this as a reply.

You put on your earphones. This is when you realize that one tends to be more unwilling, to be more selective with words and actions, and be less submissive when with a stranger. But strangers can respond to that in two ways: it’s either they do something really good that would make you believe that all of the strangers you meet are kind or they do something really bad that would make you doubt every person in your life. More often than not, you combine the two: they do something good but take this as a signal to doubt.

The stranger doesn’t give up. He asks where you are going. You hope you had set the volume of the music player earlier so you couldn’t hear him. But you decide to offer a reply: Davao. The neutrality of your voice should suggest an obvious detachment and unwillingness to converse. Perhaps this stranger would reconsider the hint. But then he asks: “Asa dapit sa Davao?” (Where exactly in Davao?) You wonder why this foreigner speaks straight Bisaya.

There are a few seconds interval between the utterances of each word. He smirks. You remove your earphones. A few exchanges of words wouldn’t hurt, you think. But before you could reply, the bus conductor asks the same question. You say: Roxas.

When it is the stranger’s turn, he says: Ladislawa. Then he demands for a senior citizen discount. The bus conductor does as asked then proceeds to another passenger. This is when you want the bus conductor to not leave you with the stranger.

You wonder if the stranger read what you thought. He calls the bus conductor: Psssst! which for you is impolite. Then he speaks in fluent English. You don’t know why he switches language code. But the bus conductor seems to be used to it and turns on the television.

The stranger turns to you and curses. He asks why the Filipino passengers in the bus didn’t react when the television wasn’t on. He says: It’s a passenger’s privilege! You notice again his prominent nose with tightly pressed eyeglasses on its bridge.

You imitate how he smirked at you. Then the stranger starts to speak again, addressing you: That’s the problem with Filipinos. They just accept and accept. They do not know how to stand up for their rights. The stranger continues by questioning Filipino men who get out of the bus for inspection near Lanang. He mentions something about civil rights then America and the Philippines, Americans and Filipinos. Then he says Filipinos don’t even know what the rules are for. They just follow them. You remember your Social Science teacher for a second. Then you wonder if the stranger knows that you are a Filipino yourself.

Instead of being threatened, you find the stranger’s character interesting. He can be a good material for a poem, a story, or an essay. When he asks if you are a student, you say: Yes. Third year. English major in UP. He concludes that you are smart: UP is the national university in the Philippines, right? At this point, you accept that this would be your longest ride from Tagum to Davao ever.

You find out that the stranger is from Florida. He has been divorced for ten years. No children to take care of. He has decided to settle in Tagum for good: My ex-wife who stole my money wouldn’t get more from me; she doesn’t even know where Philippines is.

Strangers don’t want the other to feel sorry about their sad past. But you say anyway: I am sorry to hear about the divorce. He begins to give you his insight: When my wife filed the divorce, it made me think that reality is harsh, threatening. You wait for something good to happen even though you know there isn’t anything to wait for, really. I realize that the people in our lives are there for a reason—to love you, to hurt you, to stay with you, to leave you, to make you feel strong, to make you know you are weak. Life is the best of hell. Sometimes we choose to think about happy thoughts. But overdoing it would disappoint you, sooner or later. He looks closely into your eyes: I have no right to be mad at Life. It is a process that I have to go through—a process of acceptance. You decide that the stranger can keep good company.

To lighten the mood, you ask for the stranger’s name and what he does for a living. He responds: I’m Davi (pronounced as Davai). It’s David actually but I changed it. Nobody bought my paintings when I was a David. The name is too common. Without intending to, you chuckle. It makes Davi smile. You just made the stranger feel comfortable conversing with you further.

The part when men are asked to get down for inspection comes. You are glad to be free of him and the conversation. But instead, he stays in his seat. He gives you mani when a vendor comes inside the bus. You refuse it three times, then accept it anyway because you might appear rude.

As the conversation goes on, you can’t help but notice the red coat of mani stuck on Davi’s teeth. But when the religion topic comes in, you concentrate on his serious face.

He mentions some known Christian churches such as Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Iglesia ni Kristo, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints then: All of the churches claim that they are the true Church. He raises his hands then say: Believe our church so you may be saved! You realize that this is not your first encounter with a stranger who opens up the topic of religion. You hear him further say: I don’t like religion. I don’t like investing so much in one when I can just open the Bible and pray in the ways I can. Other passengers look at the both of you. Now he makes you feel really uncomfortable; you wish the bus ride didn’t take so long.

Davi doesn’t stop: I don’t like the Catholic church because they worship idols, and Mary, and all the saints. I don’t like Iglesia ni Kristo because they claim that apart from them, no one can be saved. Seventh Day Adventist is better because they didn’t force me to enter theirs, unlike Iglesia and Catholic. And the Mormon…

If you are a devoted Catholic and are so inclined, give him an analogy: if you are a father or a mother living abroad, you would want to have a picture of your children and loved ones kept in your wallet or posted on your wall—that is, to somehow remind yourself that they are really there and that you will see them sooner or later. Make sure to say this in an all-knowing tone. His reply as you expect: It actually makes sense. You are really intelligent.

Even though you already know the stranger’s name or some of his personal information, doubt it when he says: You know we could be really good friends. Instead, give him your mastered smirk. He is still a stranger after all. An hour acquaintance shouldn’t confuse you. This is when you start responding: I don’t know or I’m not sure to all his questions. If he gets lucky: I think so.

You know that when the stranger asks for your name, you use a common one. But instead you say: Julie, your real name. You wonder what has gotten into your mind.

The stranger continues: I always sit at the last row. But when I saw you, I knew that you could be someone whom I could talk to. You know what? You are the first person to whom I confided my religious struggle. But you doubt still, always. A succession of nods is okay as response. Never get too friendly. When he sings a song with lyrics: Her name is Destiny. It is a cue to get another seat. But you can’t because you are in the window seat. Panic. Not too obviously.

When the stranger says: You know what, I like girls your age, you tell him: it is awkward and inappropriate. Breathe. Assess if you were too friendly in the earlier conversation. Ignore the stranger now because it is not okay to say this to a seventeen-year-old girl. Then he says: I don’t care about what other people say. When you’re in love, it just explodes. And you can do nothing about it.

Never give your phone number. If the stranger insists, give him wrong digits. You save his phone number in your phone as a compromise not to give yours. He says: Please text or call me so I would be able to know your number. Perhaps we could go to a Thai, Korean, or Japanese restaurant. I’ll ask permission from your mother if you like. Just smirk. This time, assert your right to be unfriendly. You just nod or keep silent when he says: Are you afraid of me? Is it because I am a foreigner? Or is it because I am older than you?

Finally, when the stranger asks: Do you like me? say: Sorry? Pretend not to have heard the question. Then say: Ambot. Do it with a fierce face. Decide to look outside the window even if you hear him say: I like it when you say ‘Ambot.’ That moment when you stuck your tongue between your teeth. It’s cute.

You think it is one of the happiest life-saving moments when the bus finally arrives in Ladislawa. Just stare outside or at the floor. Never look at the stranger again. Remember that compliments from a stranger are always almost untrue.

Months pass. While you are walking on the streets of Tagum, you see a familiar person sitting on a bench touching a girl’s shoulder. You think that she is about your age. You look at the familiar person’s face and try to remember where you have met him. After several seconds, you remember a bus ride with an impertinent old man named Davi. You walk away.

Julie Kristine de Guzman graduated this year from the BA English-Creative Writing program of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. Her thesis, of which this essay is a part, received the Best Thesis award. She hails from Tagum City.

One thought on “This is How to Talk to a Stranger”

  1. I think for girls specially the young ones should be very careful when talking to strangers. People like davi who insists on talking and not sensitive even with the non verbals u are sending shud be treated maliciously. Good thing this girl is so much aware of the situation. A nice read though.

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