25. Colleagues

“They had no conversation together… but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other. Now nothing! …  Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.”

~ Jane Austen (Persuasion)

As  I was led to a table almost in the centre of the hall, I wondered if it would be better if he joined me sooner, or much later. Later would have given me some time to regain what little composure I had had and perhaps I could have made an excuse to not wait if I wanted to chicken out.

I didn’t really get a chance to dwell on it too much because he walked over from his group almost right away. I cannot even remember if I had a drink brought to me. I just remember he sat at the small square table with me.

The atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable.

He picked up the book that he authored, and I had brought with me, got a pen out and signed it. I then gave him the compilation of newspaper clippings from all the newspapers and magazines that I had put together in a book. It was a little messier than what I had done before but I had been pressed for time.

He flipped the pages but his cursory glance through the articles lacked the same enthusiasm that he showed the previous gifts.

We were both quiet. I didn’t know what I could say to lighten the mood. And he, I believe, didn’t know how to broach the subject I had written about. There was a business-like air to his movements that night.

I was silently willing him not to say anything… because somehow I knew it would not be a response I wanted or needed. Inside, I berated myself for insisting on being there. I wanted to just get up and leave and hoped that he would provide me with an exit. He didn’t.

Finally, perhaps he too couldn’t stand the silence anymore, he said that he appreciated what I had done. He said, he thought of me as a “colleague“.

I have always read how people said that they wished, at some point of embarrassment in their lives, that the ground would open up and swallowed them. I didn’t understand the analogy or how profoundly mortified  a person could be to wish that, until that night, at that very moment.

I remember nodding my head as I tried to find the right words to say that would make any sense and not make things worse. All I could do for several seconds was nod. I didn’t really hear if he said anything else, or maybe I don’t remember. It was almost like he was talking to no one in particular, he was looking down at the table as he spoke and therefore he didn’t see my nods. He didn’t seem to notice that I had not said anything.

I think I finally said, “it’s o.k. ******, it’s fine”.

Then he nodded and added, as if he was offering a consolation, that he thought I was very brave. I thought “huh?” and didn’t quite comprehend what he meant. Brave? I must have looked very puzzled because he explained, that he thought I was “brave for writing” what I did, for letting him know my feelings.

I don’t recall what I said exactly but I know I thought at least I have said what I needed to say. He seemed to think he needed to say more and all I wanted to do was to say, stop. Enough.

So I said again, “it’s o.k. It really is.”

He nodded and then we both got up and walked in opposite directions. Me towards the main exit.

As soon as I was out his sight, I sat on a stone wall and called X. I needed to talk. The driver who drove me there would have only just started his dinner and I didn’t want to make him come right away. A part of me needed to get away to figure things out and another part just wanted to crumble and cry. I still had the drive to the airport and a flight home to get through so I needed my wits about me, but my brain was all foggy and my heart, well that part of me was confused with feelings of disappointment, sadness and frustration.

I was a colleague??? Not even a friend? Not even an inner circle? After all that he shared, after knowing so much about him and his family and being included by the people he was close to… I was just a colleague? The outer ring that is just one away from the general public? Ouch!

Brave? That was my consolation?

I was his brave colleague.

Give me a medal.

Advertisements

24. Personal Circles

Colleague: [noun] A fellow worker or member of a staff, department, profession, etc

~ Dictionary.com

Back in the mid 90’s, I went to Japan on an exchange, friendship visit. As a part of that visit, to foster cultural understanding and appreciation, the organisers arranged for each delegate to reside with a local family for a night. Just so we understood how precious and exclusive a home-stay was to the Japanese families that were going to receive us, how much it was outside of their comfort zone, we were given lessons on what was normal for Japanese people, traditionally.

At one of those sessions, we were told how the Japanese maintain boundaries within which they place the different groups of people in their life. While other societies do the same, the boundaries tend to be flexible and can even be vague – friends can be closer than family, for instance. For the Japanese, the lines are clear and (fairly strictly) adhered to.

In the inner circle, there is the person and their immediate family – which may include paternal grandparents. They live in the same household and know about all the goings-on of that household. They share the most intimate “secrets” of the family/household, which they maintain as privileged information just among themselves.

The home is sacred ground, where they can shed their outer persona and be entirely themselves. No pretense, no masks.

The next circle out from that innermost one is where they place their friends, family, and family friends, and perhaps a close neighbour. These people may have an insight about the family and may have even been invited to the home.

Further out from that is the more superficial circle of colleagues, business acquaintances, and clientele. This group of people may hang out with the person (karaoke sessions, business dinners) and may meet with the spouses. Often they don’t get invited home and only know what they need to know. They will also know the person based on the personality he chooses to show – a front, polite, and stoic, laughs at the right time. They may never know the person as he or she truly is.

The outermost circle is everyone else.

Considering how we (the exchange visitors) are foreign to our host family, for them to agree to have us stay a couple of nights with them, that was really taking them out of their comfort zone, having to reveal their innermost secrets to perfect strangers, most of whom don’t even speak their language (we were all given a crash course).

In our culture, the lines are faint. I grew up with friends visiting our home and I have visited theirs. My sisters even had friends sleep over at our place and we have accompanied my eldest sister at her friend’s place when that friend’s parents were out of town. When we went for Quran reading lessons, we helped our teacher with her home food sales business – packaging, preparing the ingredients. We hung out in her home.

Sometimes, I think I forget that while I function on that faint boundaries principle with the people around me, there are others who maintain very fixed lines like the Japanese do.

21. Seasons change, as do people.

“But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

~ Jane Austen (Pride & Prejudice)

After the autographs were signed, and the photographs were taken, the members began to disperse… for some, it was an opportunity to strengthen new-found friendships based on mutual interest. Others came with friends, or family and just wanted to hang out. The younger members brought parents. There was also someone from the media – some local internet publicity person.

Mr SG retreated into his office to sort some things out and after he was done, he re-emerged. I watched him and saw him looking around. As he searched he called out the name he knew me by, and when I waved (I had not actually moved from my spot on the sofa), he nodded in my direction and said, “I’m leaving”. I smiled and said “o.k.” and asked that he take care. He then looked for the president of the club to say his goodbyes.

I stayed on to chat with the friends that I made through the group, helped with some of the packing, and then I too excused myself and made my way back to the hotel.

He texted me that night. That text, in which he thanked me for coming and for the gift, brought me to clouds higher than any plane did. I had a smile plastered to my face for a long time after.

All that time, right up to the moment his mission took place, I continued expanding the website I put together for him, which meant he kept in touch because I let him vet each section. Just before he took off, he actually requested I compiled the media pieces on him, so I also created an online repository separate from the website. I added materials from before, during and after his mission.

We had brief conversations on the phone. And I really mean brief. All but one of those conversations took place after I phoned him.

One time, just once, he phoned me.

I was in my office talking to my partner and we were chatting about him. Almost as if we had said his name once too many times that we conjured his presence, my phone rang. I had to re-check the caller ID when I saw his name. I confirmed it was the name I never expected to see, and the phone literally flew out of my hand… I had to catch it mid-air before it crashed to the ground.

You should have seen our faces – mine and my partner’s. She grinned as I cleared my throat. She might have whispered “quickly!”, I don’t remember now; both of us were concerned that he might hang up if I took a second longer to answer.

I was making all sorts of facial expressions as we spoke, because I was happy and nervous. My partner stayed in the room to listen. He spoke of the gift I made for him, and how his father wanted one of the 2 parts I gave. When I said “no…”, he assured me that he had no plans of giving it to him. I made a mental note to offer his father something else or maybe a smaller copy if and when I had the time.

He then mentioned that he was being interviewed for a magazine published in my home country. It was one of those you’d get by subscription only. And the only people I know who subscribed are doctors, dentists and lawyers … you know, for their waiting rooms. He asked if I thought I could get him a copy. I said I would try. At first it was difficult. A friend offered me her copy. I then found the publisher and they asked me how many I wanted. He was pleased to hear that when I updated him.

The publishing office staff said this one thing that I daren’t ask him about, even though I was curious too. She said, if he was the subject of the interview, “we would normally give them a copy/copies”. I made some sort of excuse and assured her that they were for him and she had seen me contacting him (to ask how many he wanted). I don’t know why he called me to ask me except, was that an opportunity for him to call without seeming too obvious?

Once I had the copies of the magazine, with extras for a couple of the other members, I called him to ask how he would like me to pass them to him. I mentioned my intention to meet with a few of the committee members that weekend and he agreed to meet me then. He told me to let him know once I arrived.

I flew to that city again that weekend, and went straight to his place of business. The other members of the committee were there too. It was to be my last meal with them before I migrated to my current home.

Unbeknownst to me, he had called the place around the time we were just gathering for dinner. He spoke to his staff and asked if I was there, when they told him I was, he asked to speak to me. The expressions of the people in the group were very mixed. I was very uncomfortable. If darts could come out of their stares, I would have been like a voodoo doll stabbed by several.

I went to the phone and confirmed with him that I would wait till he arrived. One of the committee asked why he had asked for me and not for them. I really didn’t know what to answer.

When he came, he sat with us and we chatted. He poured us some tea and continued being a pleasant host. I gave him the magazines, which he signed for us. He didn’t seem to have any plans other than to spend the evening with us.

Then I made a mistake.

You see, I don’t like photos of myself. I often find that I ruin the picture. I prefer to be the one behind the camera. So, when the group gathered for a photo with him, I took a few shots. He called for me to be in the picture and gestured that I stood next to him for it. I agreed in the end but the person next to him seemed comfortable there and made no attempt to change positions.  Awkwardly I stood at the end. I had hoped for another picture of just the two of us. However, his expression had changed and after that, he said he had to leave.

It might have been only my imagination but he seemed to have been offended.

He was cold after that, very cold.

He ignored all my emails and text messages, even though I tried to explain.