It seems I have an incurable disease. Curiosity. The symptoms? Questions, questions, and more questions. I can’t sit beside anyone I don’t know for long without wanting to know all about them, what they do, where they’re from… I have a tendency to interview unsuspecting acquaintances, and anyone unfortunate enough to sit beside me at a multi-course Chinese wedding dinner surely must stagger up from the table feeling their personalities have been wrung like a sponge.
My curiosity finds its most delicious satisfaction in people, and when I am not meeting, interviewing, researching, and writing about people at work, I spend time reading about people, listening to podcasts about people, and taking tea with them, left right and centre. Such is the life of an expat that a new person is never far from our grasp, and each one is a treasure trove waiting to be peeked into.
It sounds like I am some sort of maniac, but before you start scrutinising my picture and avoiding me in the street, understand that I have got my habit under control. I have a very friendly smile, and I am adept at maintaining a two-way conversation, offering enough in return to keep the information coming my way as I try to build, piece by piece, some sense of the person in front of me.
In the UK, that home of my birth, people – prepare for a drastic and awful generalisation – tend to not be all that interested in other people. Case Study Number One: I have now been living in Malaysia (a country many of my compatriots have never even been near) for nearly three years, and yet people I know have never asked me a single question, preferring instead to talk about their job, their house, their new outfit, that new song on the radio.
Nearly everyone one meets in the UK will happily monologue about their kids, their Christmas decorations, exactly what the issue was with the postman last Tuesday, and just why they have brought a pasta salad for lunch today rather than the usual sandwich, but you and your life seems to be of little interest compared to the joyous offloading of day-to-day banalities.
You’d think I would be rejoicing – free, fast-flowing information! – but this Curious George finds little satisfaction in the verbal garbage dumping. Where’s the fun without the chase?
Thankfully, there is chase a-plenty in Malaysia. My curiosity radar nearly explodes with the vastness of the places, the buildings, the festivals, and the foods, and my fascination with people is satisfied tenfold. Not only are there many local people with extraordinary lives, every expat is like a fridge stuffed full of edible intrigues, and I meet so many people that make me think or make me question my own life, and so many people that humble or inspire me, that I can barely keep track of them.
Unfortunately, these interesting people tend to be interested people, too, much to my consternation. Just as I conversationally roll up my sleeves and begin to peel the layers of a person like an onion, they start asking me questions! The two-way convo turns into a polite battle for question-room as we hustle to glean from one another all the nuggets we need to satisfy the insatiable interest that this new specimen offers. Luckily, I can often storm in with the upper hand – I am, after all, nosy for a living (we tend to call it journalism; it sounds less invasive).
Is this fair, I sometimes ask myself guiltily. Do I take too much? I reassure myself with soothing platitudes: I never nose where I am not welcomed, I never was a curtain twitcher, and, let’s be honest, most people enjoy talking about themselves.
And yet… the twinges of guilt remain, mostly because I consume so much information at such a fierce rate that large swaths of it get lost to allow new details to elbow in. I often go to tell a friend about a fascinating person I have met, but can’t remember their name, or where I met them, and sometimes even where they are from.
I am one of those rare people who still use those tools called pen and paper – yes, I write things down that I want to remember – but my notes tend to be restaurant recommendations, books to buy, films to watch. The general wonderment of the everyday Joe sadly gets lost in the onwards swirl of life and time, because how do you jot down a person’s life on a Post-it?
But perhaps the lack of archiving doesn’t matter. Perhaps the fact that Joe touched my life for that one moment, that his story made me stop and think, is enough. Our lives bumped, our existences nudged, and our meeting altered the trajectory, however slightly, of our respective orbits through life. The facts may slip away, but the impact has been made.
So don’t be alarmed, dear potential acquaintances, if you find yourself under my spotlight. My interest is wholesome, my questions are friendly, and I am never just making conversation – your life is of interest to me, because your journey or attitude might teach me something, and your strength might inspire me to follow in your footsteps.
Plus, a people collection takes up less space than a key ring collection. I recommend it.
Source: The Expat April 2013
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