I draw a crying little girl who soon becomes a smiling little girl. I draw her sister, her dad, her uncle, her mom, and basically the whole family. I draw a Frenchman. I draw a German woman who lives in England. We get a good conversation going, half the train car taking part. A real conversation. I like curious people: they ask good questions. We talk about learning languages. I mention how wonderful it is to practice with native speakers so easily, when I can start a conversation through a portrait. German, Spanish, and Japanese especially, I mention, since it’s so hard for me to find. Not thirty seconds later does a young Asian woman board the train, and grab a seat directly opposite me. I had already drawn everyone else on the train, so of course, my two hands start to drawing her picture now. She watches her form start to take shape on the page: first her dark hair, parting at the front, falling at the temples. Then eyebrows, wide eyes looking, and slowly, a smile forms from a thousand pencil strokes. I ask her name in German: “Wie heißt du?” “Yumiko,” she replies. Yumiko? A Japanese name! What a coincidence! Immediately I break into what little Japanese I know. Yumiko, the stranger on the train, is instantly surprised. Here is an American on a German train drawing her portrait with both hands, while speaking (broken) Japanese!
I have a very small Japanese vocabulary. I know a few stock phrases. I can build new sentences with a few sentence types in my tool box, and the words demo (although), dakara (therefore), and to (and) go a really long way to me getting the most out of what I have. That’s a long way to say: you have to be very patient to speak with me in Japanese. You have to really want to communicate.
She does. We exhaust my store of stock phrases. We expand to new subjects. We speak of travelling. We speak of music (I’m a big fan of Japanese music, so that’s always a go-to topic for me). We speak of friends and school. When I don’t know a word, we search and find an English word we know in common. When we can’t find one of those, we find a German one. Even when all words fail us, we push forward to understand each other, without them. When words and phrases can’t be recalled, even the silence holds meaning. We just smile, and enjoy being two people on a train, honestly enjoying each other’s presence. It isn’t so much that we enjoy what we’re communicating. It’s that we enjoy communicating. It’s a moment of real, strong, deep connection—and plenty of grins.
My stop passes. I do not care. The next stop, too, comes and goes. I have a day-ticket, so twenty minutes out of my way is just twenty minutes more time to share. Twenty minutes more connection. Twenty more minutes to learn from this person in front of me. It doesn’t feel like she’s Japanese or I’m American or like we’re meeting in Germany. She could be from Lebanon or Italy or Brazil or Iceland and it would change nothing. We’re just there. No assumptions, no judgements. It’s…a ‘click.’ I’ve seen it a few times before. Once every two-hundred, three-hundred, portraits or so. These moments are always fleeting, I’ve found, so I want to savor this one while it lasts. We always part ways. I hardly ever hear from these people again. But we are both left with a memory, the knowledge that two human beings, perhaps from different countries, religions, languages, can sit down together and honestly want to learn from each other. That they can honestly enjoy each other’s presence. A small miracle, us meeting on a train. I can’t ask for more than that.