Why is she sitting beside me with her cumbersome grocery bags? I looked around at all the vacant seats on the bus, and wondered why she chose to plop down next to me. I adjusted my purse, and pulled my limbs a little closer to give her more room. Silently, I was annoyed that my personal space was being crowded. Then she looked up from her groceries, and gave me a weary smile, and I was reminded of the times there was no personal space to be had. Here, I had the luxury of my own seat, but in Thailand I had often found myself, standing on a bus or train, squished between strangers. That was just how it was, but now, I felt that a stranger sitting next to me was invading my space.
In Asia, a day never went by when I didn’t feel the touch or breath of another human being. It was something that couldn’t be avoided. Whether it was a gentle push onto the subway train, or a nudge in the line, I was reminded that the world around me was very much alive, and I was not alone. In Korea, I was reminded to keep going, hurry up, and avoid eye contact. Everyone was in a rush, and there was no time to offer apologies for bumping into someone. In Thailand, I was reminded to keep moving, wait patiently, and offer a smile. Everyone was going somewhere, but there was time to say, ‘excuse me’ when you had to push by. At first, I felt overwhelmed and anxious, pushing through crowded markets and being squished on public transportation. Then I came to welcome the squeeze and push of the city, and I would wonder why, on the rare occasion, that no one sat in the vacant seat next to me.
Here, in Canada, I do not wonder why the seat next to me is usually vacant. Here, we love our personal space, and it is more comfortable to be alone with our thoughts or devices than to entertain a smile or conversation with a stranger. I totally get it. When we step outside our personal space or into that of another, we are taking a risk. We are acknowledging someone else, and opening the door to the unknown. We might just feel the brush of a knee and the bump of an elbow, or we might exchange a look and something more. Although I may prefer to sit alone, to guard my personal space, I must remember that it is a luxury, and that some of my best journeys were made with no seat at all.