In the common area of our university housing apartment building there is a playground.
It’s quiet there in the middle of the day, the swings sit empty during the hours when most children are eating lunch, finishing their school day or napping. But right at 3:00, it comes alive with groups of school-age kids playing basketball and riding bikes, preschoolers digging in the sandbox, and babies in their mother’s arms as the women exchange stories and gossip.
The community where we live is very diverse, as the college attracts students and scholars from all over the world. I’ve found the people to be generally friendly, even though we all speak many different languages. We have shared a meal with our Korean neighbors, exchanged travel tips with a new family from Israel and walked to library story time with friends from Ethiopia.
And still, everyday when 3:00 comes and I think about going to the playground, I feel nervous. There’s a subtle fear, a quiet question – Will I know anyone? Will anyone talk to me? Will it be lonelier there watching other moms interact with each other than it is here in my tiny apartment alone with two babies?
Recently, our RA asked to interview our family for a feature in the community newsletter. We told stories about our hometowns and hobbies and submitted a family photo. The week after the newsletter came out I went to the playground with my two sons. I had scanned the faces of the other moms who were present and knew that I didn’t speak the same language as any of them. I flashed a quick smile to the ones I’d seen before and sat down, scrolling through my phone as a defense against my loneliness.
Suddenly a little boy came up to me excitedly, pointing at my toddler.
“Hello! Hello! This is Bobby! From California!” he exclaimed in his sweet Chinese accent. “I am Sammy, I have seen your picture at my house.”
“Hi Sammy, “ I replied, smiling, realizing that he must be talking about the newsletter.
“That is my mom,” he pointed to the tiny woman pushing the stroller toward us, “and that is MY Tommy.”
Sammy gestured toward to the large baby sitting in the stroller and then looked back at Bobby, my almost 2 year old. “You have a Tommy AND I have a Tommy. Two Tommys!”
His mother approached, out of breath and smiling. “Sammy’s been wanting to meet you. My baby is Tommy too.”
We sat there, comparing our sweet babies the best we could, given that she speaks very little English and my proficiency in Mandarin is worse. But there was a thrill of connection, we both had babies named Tommy and that was enough to create laughter and camaraderie. I tucked my phone into my pocket and left it there, exchanging my safe virtual world of think pieces and status updates for the real one in front of me where I didn’t speak the language but still was being invited to participate.
Here’s the thing – those quiet questions that come with me to the playground, they’re present nearly everywhere I go. At church, at book club, at music lessons, in new situations and everyday moments, I’m fighting the feeling that I don’t yet belong, the fear that I’ll make a misstep, the uncertainty of not knowing how to build a bridge of connection to those around me. And the temptation to sit alone and build a neat orderly online world where I can pick and choose what to see and read and talk about will win out if I let it.
But then Sammy runs up.
And I’m reminded that all it takes is some little slice of life in common and a willingness to try. There’s a bravery in saying hello, in taking a step toward someone, in seeking to find common ground – and great joy in discovering the ways we are more alike than different.
So here’s to trying a little harder, to putting away our phones in favor of the real world right in front of us. Here’s to quieting the voice that says you don’t belong or you don’t know how to connect. You do.
It starts with hello.