At my workplace, there is a little cafe in the office complex. In it work Serena and Sammy, the owners, and whomever they can keep as the scrambled egg and sandwich maker, who stands behind the counter and takes orders. Serena and Sammy are South Korean, and most of the women they hire for the deli job are, as well. When I first started working at the office complex, a woman named Sun worked there.
Each morning, I walked down to the cafe for a cup of hot water for my tea, and almost every day – unless she was very busy – Sun would greet me, saying: “Towles! You are so beautiful! You must make husband very happy.” I would laugh at this, thank her, and order my tea. Sun was desperate to perfect her English, and she loved to chat, so in time, I began to learn a little more about her:
She drove an hour and a half to work each day, arriving around 6:00 am for her all-day shift. Once, when I mentioned I was headed to China, she drew an imaginary map in the air for me, to show just how far South Korea was from the NRC, and where her relatives lived. She showed me photographs of her family – a husband, a son and a daughter, tightly posed and smiling brightly in front of a gray, air-brushed canvas.
When Serena and Sammy weren’t looking, Sun would, with a furtive glance, pass me a fresh biscuit, a cookie or a luscious cube of cantaloupe, shushing me when I tried to thank her. Sun worked hard at scrambled eggs, but she would sometimes confide in me how bored she was with her job, how she longed to spend the day with her music, teaching American students how to play the violin. She invited me to her children’s orchestra recitals, gave me her business card and urged me to pick up a stringed instrument.
One morning, when I went to the cafe for my daily cup of tea, Sun seemed brighter than usual. She announced that she would be leaving the deli. “I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “This is America. I must pursue my dream.” Before I left the deli that day, Sun gave me a little gift bag. I tried to open it there, but she stopped me. I thought that her reluctance to have me open the gift in her presence might signal some kind of cultural difference, and I was keen to respect my new friend’s native customs.
Back in my office, I considered the bag: It was small and silver, embossed with snowflakes despite the spring-like weather. The tissue paper Sun had used to conceal the gift was white and gauzy, and inside was a slip of paper on which she had written a note, thanking me for helping her practice her English and for being so nice to her. The gift she gave me is still such a puzzle – when I opened the bag, I found two delicate, lacy brassieres – one pink, one white – too small for me, but lovely. I giggled – and blushed. I imagined Sun worrying over her choice, the packaging, how to pass the bag over the sneeze guard without anyone taking notice. When I walked down to thank her later, she was gone.
Among all the gifts Sun gave me while she worked at the deli – the conversation, the stolen goodies – this last, dear, strange, funny one taught me the most. There are all kinds of people in the world like this, people who want someone to talk to, people who are full of surprises.
Andrew, the guy who used to work the cash register at our dry cleaners, was, in a former life, in his former country, a classical pianist. I loved to see him drum out tunes on the countertop in time to the music from his headphones. I sat beside a guy named Don once at a Tennessee football game whose memories of Vietnam made me shrink from my own selfishness and indulgence. At my first-ever job out of college, a woman named Nancy owned the convenience store in the building. After I’d gotten to know her, she set me up on a blind date with a guy from the 12th floor (he was British – and another stranger! – but it didn’t work out).
So, over time, I have become slightly obsessed with talking to strangers. I am a little shy, but these people fascinate me – and they are everywhere: on every city corner, in every car on the highway, in fields and big office buildings and in taxi cabs. All of them, filled with life, potential, stories and surprises.