Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Learning to say hi

(Blue Skyz Studios/Flickr)
(Blue Skyz Studios/Flickr)

I often smile at strangers and ask cashiers how their day is going. My walk to class is an open book; the easiest step a person can take to increase their own happiness and respect for their community is to let the willing into their lives.

I wish I could say my own culture taught me the importance of this.

In January 2015, I traveled to southern Haiti with an organization called YourStory International to perform case-by-case transitional assistance consulting. I had never left the United States before, and in an aggressive gamble, I pledged to travel to the former French colony with people I barely knew and without any knowledge of what the residents of the country were like beyond media memories from the 2010 earthquake. I consider myself a skeptic, and my initial nervousness did not suggest that this adventure would ultimately teach me to approach the unknown with trust instead of defensiveness.

During the expedition, I had the opportunity to purchase a souvenir from a persistent street merchant. I decided on a painting, but almost immediately remembered that I had left my wallet elsewhere for safekeeping. I asked Yari, the vendor, to hold onto the painting I had picked out while I went to retrieve my wallet. Without a second thought, he gave me a funny look and simply said: “Take the painting with you. I know you’ll come back to pay.”

I was caught off guard. If this man conformed to the statistical profile of a Haitian based on YourStory’s field research, he was lucky to have a job and lived on roughly $300 per year. How well he did in the market that day could potentially determine whether or not he ate that night. Yet despite his dire plight, he chose to approach me, a complete stranger, with trust instead of apprehension. I challenge you to think of a single Dunkin Donuts, NAPA Auto Parts or any other store that would be so forgiving of a customer who lost his wallet at an inopportune time, even with much less to lose.

I’m not advocating that businesses should all be universally trusting to the point where they  let their customers pay for their goods when it is convenient for them. However, it is clear that the attitudes that govern even simple business transactions in America permeate other areas of its culture. Americans feel uncomfortable walking side-by-side with a stranger or looking them in the eye while passing them on the sidewalk. They feel strange sitting in a seat next to someone on a bus or a crowded lecture hall. Talking to a stranger is understood to be a brave undertaking. Approachable, trusting people shatter both our natural inclination to be defensive and our assumption that others will behave the same way, much to our discomfort.

The people of Haiti have survived the worst fortunes that could befall a nation. If you are 40 years old in Haiti, you have lived through a genocidal dictator, watched scant rumors regarding the AIDS epidemic destroy tourism, lived under United States occupation, voted in countless fraudulent elections, and, perhaps worst of all, watched an earthquake level everything you had built in spite of all that came before.

Yari and his open, transparent, trusting approach was this missing variable that helped me understand how the people of Haiti continue to thrive despite hard times.  I have known some Haitian people to pool a portion of their funds to help a neighbor should they need it, with trust as the fund’s guarantor. They smile and say good afternoon to everyone they see, regardless of whether they know each other or not. They adopt children in need of a home without regard to their own economic security. The kind of strength it takes to survive what Haitians have survived is communal, and I am not sure, given the individualistic, skeptical approach many Americans have, that they would be ready to weather the misfortunes of Haiti and still survive as the Haitians have.

The people who can help you when you need it most will enter your life by fate. To enrich your life, increase your receptiveness to new encounters. I would rather each person I meet remember me with a grin on my face and an inquiry about their day than staring at the ground, wondering when they will leave me in peace.

Francis Schulze is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    J. BurbankJan 22, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Nice piece. Well written and so true. Let’s all learn from Yari.