Tea with strangers

Tea_Gleason_Weekender
Jessica Gleason/Staff

I found myself on a train hurtling 38 miles away from the only place in California I’m familiar with in the pursuit of conversing with four strangers on a Monday night.

As a New York City native, my instincts to evade interactions with strangers only kicked in temporarily, before being shut down by a greater pull toward the spontaneous nature of this odd situation. Yet, when I reached my destination and sunk into the comforts of the couch there, I did not expect to be similarly sinking into a remarkably open dialogue. From topics spanning from forgiveness to relationships, the ensuing conversation opened my eyes to perspectives and personalities I would have never seen or met otherwise.

This was not Alcoholics Anonymous or a secret session of gossip, but it was just your average conversation about the deeper aspects of life with a bunch of strangers.

This was my first Tea With Strangers experience and surprisingly, it was what I needed. I had stumbled upon Tea With Strangers accidentally when I was bored and browsing the Internet. The first thought that had popped into my mind was: Who has that much free time to talk to random strangers? Even with the skeptical thoughts, though, for some reason I never stopped thinking about it. To meet up with strangers and have a conversation about anything — with no strings attached — was alluring.

Time, location and a short blurb about the host are the only information revealed to each participant before attending. The hosts simply plan for a gathering of strangers, and we — the strangers — show up, not knowing who or what to expect. It’s like a blind date, except for the fact that the mutual person of contact is also a stranger, and instead of one daunting unknown person, there are four. The simple concept of conversing with strangers, paired with the laborious efforts of organizing an event to meet strangers, seemed ironic to me: The Bay Area is home to millions of people whom we pass by daily and could easily strike up a conversation with, and yet, we don’t.

The Bay Area is home to millions of people whom we pass by daily and could easily strike up a conversation with, and yet, we don’t.

In our day and age at the height of social media rage, connections seem paradoxically ubiquitous yet ephemeral. We measure our connection and emotional bond with others via numerous likes, follows and friends; meeting new people consists of swiping right, double tapping, and texting. Despite the climbing numbers in friend requests and likes, our connections fade through the lack of personal initiative. Posts become buried under the mass spam of selfies and Snapchats  disappear within seconds. We soon forget the reality of shared memories, while the habit of compulsively documenting our lives hinders forging new ones.

By no means have I escaped this obsession with virtual reality: I think I even still exceed the average time wasted on social media. I find myself constantly drawn back to tapping on apps without even my conscious acknowledgment. On Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, I quickly access seemingly everything going on in my friends’ lives. Sometimes, I get curious and nosy about my classmates from years ago and scroll through the endless catalogs of their most recent moments. Why not just directly message them and ask how they’re doing? Because that would be totally absurd. Face-to-face communication has still become the outlier among the many modes of communications at the tip of our fingers.

The factor that finally pulled me out of my ruminations on participating — to actually signing up for Tea with Strangers — was the potential of endless possibilities: in people I’d meet, in conversations I would have. Back in New York City, one of my favorite pastimes was eavesdropping on conversations in the subway. It distracted me from my own life with glimpses  into the lives of busy businessmen complaining about their work, nurses trying to catch a nap before work and parents gossiping about the progress of their children. But in a college campus bubble, it has been extremely difficult to forget my worries and focus on strangers in the real world.

Why not just directly message them and ask how they’re doing? Because that would be totally absurd.

In a sense, I was seeking escape, connection and perspective. I signed up.

***

I could tell I was no longer within a college bubble of adolescents. Surrounded by the unfamiliar sights of Redwood City, California, I couldn’t just go back without satisfying my curiosity. I gripped the doorknob to the cafe nervously and pushed on through.

I found people a decade my senior! Two decades my senior!

I clearly did not expect a group of four strangers closer to my parents’ ages than mine. My initial knee-jerk response was to pretend I was not “Nelly” and leave immediately, until I made subtle eye contact and was drawn into the conversational web like a fly.

But I stayed and I loved it. It was introspection, therapy and philosophical conversation. I had assumed that growing older meant becoming the adult figure with a map of the future, yet during this two-hour long conversation, I came to the realization that growing older changes almost  nothing besides biology. I will not suddenly be dispelled of all my current dilemmas as time passes, but I will slowly care less and less until a new chapter of my life hurls another curve ball morphing the old ruminations into similar complications.

The insecurities we experience in our past continue to present themselves in our lives regardless of age. I saw myself in the strangers I’d thought I had nothing in common with. We all shared the same doubts, feelings, and insecurities. There was a parallel from my life to theirs; while seemingly polar opposites, we could easily step into the others’ shoes to experience and understand their lives.

UC Berkeley is home to a diverse population, yet we fall into the same habits of conversing with those we already know and are comfortable with. It’s time for us all to take a risk and engage in human interaction, as frightening as that may be.

 I will not suddenly be dispelled of all my current dilemmas as time passes, but I will slowly care less and less until a new chapter of my life hurls another curve ball morphing the old ruminations into similar complications.

On the way to class one day, a friend of mine saw an attractive girl and he “swiped right” in real life. Waving his arms to catch her attention, he took a leap of faith that this girl would at least give him the chance of a conversation. No longer strangers wondering “what if,” they are a couple now thankful that the “what if” turned into an “why not”?

We live in a world where people try to disconnect from their lives by plunging themselves into their electronic devices, but after my rendezvous with four compelling strangers who were generations older, I’m willing to take a step out of my comfort zone and into the unknown.

 

Contact Nelly Lin at [email protected]