My first morning in Japan took place more than three decades ago, but I remember it vividly because of an unexpected act of kindness. Shouldering my backpack, I was making my way from my Tokyo hotel to Shinagawa Station, a sea of people streaming past me on their way to work. A soft, wet snow was falling from the gray sky.
Suddenly, a woman appeared at my side and fell in sync with my stride, holding her umbrella aloft to shelter me from the cold snow. We walked like that all the way to the station, where, to my surprise, she whipped a towel from her bag and proceeded to dry my wet hair. My Japanese back then was limited to phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” so all I could manage was a polite arigato. But my guardian angel’s job wasn’t over yet. She helped me find the Yamanote Line bound for Tokyo Station, and, finally satisfied, sent me on my way.
Over the years I have been the recipient of so many acts of kindness I have to wonder whether it’s because people in Japan are so nice or whether it’s because I’m so inept (if I didn’t get lost so often, I wouldn’t need so much help!). Strangers have gone out of their way to deliver me to my destination, made telephone calls on my behalf, helped me choose meals from indecipherable menus, and showered me with small gifts.
But no one stands out in my memory as much as that woman who took me under wing that very first day. I was excited to be in a new foreign country, nervous about finding my way, tired from the long flight, and feeling just a tad lonely in the sea of unfamiliar faces. Of course, she didn’t know any of these things when she stepped up to help. I was just a face in the crowd, but when she left me, I no longer felt quite the stranger in a very strange land. Over the years, I’ve tried to pass it forward.