Saturday, October 08, 2005


I have yet to decide whether the world is as large as our own imaginations or small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of a child’s hand. Somewhere in between, I would think, but frequently, daily, events occur that threaten to swing the pendulum one way or the other for good.

Today I was walking along the street, reading a book, feeling terribly sorry about the fact that a Khmer kid on his bike had almost been bumped by me into a tree only moments before. When I felt his bike hit my shoulder, I looked up from the book and turned back around to chart the progress of his descent, expecting him to fall, dreading his fall – but no, he was still streaming along at quite a good little clip; my accidental nudge had sent him careening towards a tree. He applied his brakes just in time, but for a moment or two the outcome was in doubt. I pictured him slamming head-on into the tree, his neck broken, his eyes alert but empty. Would I be to blame? How could anyone know? You would think that I wouldn’t read as I walk, given that I got the shit whacked out of me by a crazy Japanese homeless man a few years back while strolling along with a book in tow, but I tend not to learn from my mistakes. In any event, I saw that the kid was alright – death was not coming for him today, at least not by my invitation. I went on my way. And yes, I kept on reading. (And now I'm feeling really, really guilty about the fact that I did...)

I suppose I’ve gotten completely sidetracked off of my original point, but only peripherally, because I had meant to say, before I so rudely interrupted myself, how frequently we think of things for no reason whatsoever. Right after the kid-almost-hitting-the-tree-due-to
my-accidental-nudge incident, I suddenly remembered that the fellow who picked me up from the airport on my first night in Japan was a teacher who was leaving the land of the rising sun in another week to take over a position at a school in Singapore; five years later, my boss at the University of Cambodia turned out to be another fellow who had left that same job in Singapore, his position to be filled by the teacher who picked me up at the airport. Got that?

How many countries are there in Asia, how many teaching positions, and yet by some weird quirk of fate I can find a link between these two associates of mine, neither of whom have met the other, but both of whom have met me.

Or this:

While waiting in line for my return visa at the Cambodia-Vietnamese border, I chat up the Cambodian man next to me. Turns out he owns the busline I’m taking. Turns out that he works part of the year in Japan. Turns out he lives in the same city in Japan that I lived in – Sagamihara, in Kanagawa prefecture. Had we once shared a train in Japan? Entirely possible. Probable, even. And there we were, one foot in Vietnam, one foot in Cambodia. What a world.

There is nothing necessarily remarkable about such occurrences, which makes it all the more remarkable, in my book. I’m quite certain that the kid who I almost banged into a tree earlier today has crossed paths with other Cambodians I’ve met in town, or other foreigners who I’ve worked with in the city. And who knows? Perhaps he will encounter a relative of mine two, three years down the line, who knows where. Not I. The world shrinks. Then expands.

For example:

I’ve met people in Japan who not only grew up in my hometown but hung around the same friends that I once had. I was once even able to determine inside of thirty seconds exactly which house a girl lived in. Like so:

Me: “Where are you from?”

Her: “Canada.”

“Me too. Where in Canada?”


“Where in Ontario?”

“Near Niagara Falls.”



“Fuck off! I’m from St.Catharines!”

“Really? Where’d you go to elementary school?”

“Pine Grove.”

“No way! I went to Michael J.Brennan.” (The Catholic school that was physically connected to my public school.:

“Did you live near there?”

“I lived on _________ street.”

“ _________ street. Do you know Rick Denham?”

“My family lives right across the street from Rick Denham.”

And so it goes. Within a minute of meeting a stranger in a bar in downtown Tokyo, I’m able to ascertain what her childhood home looks like. At a certain point in time when we were both ten, eleven years old, I may have even bumped into her while playing street hockey in front of her house. A cold November wind may have been blowing that day. The sky would have been dark, of that I’m sure. Threatening rain. I would have gone home early, the pick-up game of street hockey over and done, and she would have rushed inside, both of us beating the rain, neither knowing that our paths would cross again thousands of miles from home and miles removed from youth.

If I were to step out of my apartment in Phnom Penh and bump into my high school history teacher, would I be surprised? Yes. Shocked? No. The world is smaller than I once believed. Small enough to fit in my hand? Of that I know not.

But ask me tomorrow what I think. Who knows? By that time, the world may prove itself once again to be borne anew: as small as a perfect blue pearl, with a mystery and rhythm that once again confounds me.


Christa said...

The world really is quite small in many instances. It's amazing how it all works out sometimes. How wild for you to meet someone from your own neighborhood in Japan! I bet you've met some really interesting people during all of your travels abroad.

Anonymous said...

Well they say there is just six
degrees of separation between
everyone the planet.Right now you are a few degrees closer to a
Mongolian sheep herder than I am.