In the 3 months that I’ve moved to Auckland, there’s been a scene that has played out many, many times on the streets that I have never quite made sense of – until today. The scene goes something like this: a homeless person in crummy clothes is huddled up on a street corner. Some of them have a dog with them, and those who do tend to also have a sleeping bag as well. The most destitute of them, possessing neither, might have a few pieces of cardboard as shelter or an upturned cap to ask for money. But regardless of what they can count as their material possessions, there would often be one or two nicely dressed people by their side chatting away with them. Sometimes this motley crew would be deep in conversation; other times they would be laughing so hard they’re keeling over.
I was never able to understand this scene but I finally got my answer. When walking down the busiest street of Auckland today I saw yet another nicely dressed couple talking to a homeless man, the 3 of them perched on the window ledge of a department store as if it was the most natural place to sit in the world. As they finished their conversation, the couple stood to take their leave and with a laugh and a smile, they shook hands with the homeless man and walked on, coffee in hand. It was only then that it finally dawned on me that all these nicely dressed people weren’t friends as I had thought of them as; they were passersby, strangers to the homeless until they stopped for a chat.
That so many people would bother to take time out of their day to pause, talk to someone who has no choice but to make the streets their home, and treat them as fellow human beings is a marvel to me. After living and working in 9 cities across 4 continents, it’s the first time I’ve encountered something like this with such regularity. It made me think in particular of some of the most heralded Asian cities in which I’ve spent much of my life. In the last city, I’d witnessed so much pettiness between people that it was easy to become jaded if you lived there too long.
I know some people were surprised when I decided to move to New Zealand – what could there possibly be in a country so far away? But maybe they didn’t understand what it is that I seek in a city, in a life. It is the small things upon which relationships, cities, and countries turn. And I think we could all do well to learn from this place, whose beauty is defined by its generosity of spirit than by its glistening skyscrapers. For the coming year, my wish is that we all learn to treat each other with a little bit more kindness and with a little bit more humanity.