Only One Stranger


tasha burgoyne -only one stranger-3

My family lived in a Tokyo suburb for my early years of elementary school. I attended an American school and we lived in a modern, pale concrete-colored bottom floor house while our landlords, a young Japanese couple, lived above us. Just a short walk around the corner was my favorite donut shop, Mister Donut, and a few minutes further down the street and to the left, below a flashing Coca-Cola sign, was our local train station.

I took the bus to school most days during the week. The long ride on tour bus style, gold velvet seats was cozy and at the time, I had no idea how different it was from real American school buses. I enjoyed looking out the window and having enough time to get lost in my own imagination. One afternoon was different from all the others. I rode home as usual, excited to see my mom and hungry for an afterschool snack.

To this day, the details are hazy for all of us, but for some reason, my bus was a little early and my mom had run upstairs to borrow something from our landlords. When I reached our front door and the bus had gone, I found it slightly ajar. Our door was never open without someone right there, going in or out, so seeing it this way put a bit of a panic in my heart. I called out for my mom and didn’t hear any reply. The strange quiet and unusual door placement set my vivid imagination to work and I decided something was wrong and my mom was in danger. All of this happened in a few seconds’ time. What I didn’t know, was that my mom was close by and if I had a waited a minute or two longer, everything would’ve been resolved. Instead, my imagination had me walking through our neighborhood and into the train station alone.

I walked up the steps and into the covered station filled with people coming and going. The combined clinking sounds of feet, vending machines and tickets going through ticket machines made me even more aware: I was a stranger in a strange place. I knew where I was, but I was completely lost and alone in a sea of destinations in motion. I stood at the edge of a long line of ticket collectors and waited, positioning myself to be able to see every face of those arriving, hoping my dad or sister would be coming home from work and school that way. One face, two faces, three faces and on and on it went.

After what felt like hours, and no inkling of familiarity in the faces I searched, my legs started shaking. I was losing hope in my only plan. The shaking moved up into two quivering lips and I could not hold my fear within any longer. Tears started streaming down my face. I didn’t know enough Japanese to tell a single soul in the sea of people I was surrounded by that I needed help. I met eyes and most of the them looked away or saw me, but didn’t really see, because of their own hurried needs and plans. A few stared, but didn’t approach. Finally, a ticketing agent got up and left her ticketing station. A few minutes later, she came back with a Japanese police officer and led him straight to me. I couldn’t stop the tears. He reached out his white-gloved hand and said hello. His kind eyes made me cry even harder while my English words bumbled out, burdensome, like triangles trying to fit through the rectangle’s spot on a shape sorter.

The policeman led me across the train station and down a set of steps on the other side. At the bottom of the stairs on the right was a small door that led to a police office the size of a tiny closet. He brought me inside and pointed to an empty seat, while he talked with another police officer. I sat and one of them handed me a cup of water. I stared at the large map of the city on the wall, still afraid, but no longer alone. They asked me questions in slow Japanese. I used the little Japanese I knew and then flailed my arms about, telling them what my mind had imagined had happened as if it really had: a robber had gotten into my house and I didn’t know where my mom had been taken.

This policeman listened and listened and seemed to understand that I was worried about my house. Listening isn’t just about language. He walked me all the way home and I talked the whole way, telling the story my imagination had convinced me was true, again and again. When we finally reached my house, we were met with my worried family and our landlords who helped translate until everything was cleared up and we all saw the fluke that it was. I was home and my fears imagined proved to be nothing beyond a child’s vivid imagination.

I say it was a fluke, because while it isn’t anything I would wish happened, the fact that it did, taught me a few things about what it feels like to be a stranger who is alone. Hundreds of people walked by me in the train station that day; only one noticed to the point of action. Only one stepped from their world to mine. Only one extended a hand to greet me. After all of these years and many moves later, I still remember the greeting of that Japanese policeman. I didn’t know God then, but I look back and see God meeting me in a Tokyo train station. I see God in the one who noticed and the one who extended a hand of care and protection.

Every time we notice someone and take time and courage to step from our world into theirs, we understand a bit better who we were created to be.

When we extend our hands to greet another, we have the chance to offer good news: help and hope are here! They are wrapped up together in one like a blanket that covers our strangeness and calms our fears. We are made to notice and cross the divides of us and them with an outstretched hand, kindness alive in our eyes and compassion given the power to move us to do what it takes to walk one another back home.