Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Her Legs Were Shaking, and Her Back Was Arched

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Her legs were shaking, and her back was arched.

I was eating lunch at a local place just a few feet from my place. The menu was simple—under a dozen choices and all with pictures. I’d been there a few times. Their grins were kind enough to remember me. Their patience to communicate made it worth going back. They recognized me, I appreciated them, and, even though we couldn’t really exchange our language-bound thoughts, we exchanged smiles.

There was an older father, whose eyes crinkled with laughter reminding me of a thousand other fathers I’d known across continents. There were a couple other younger children or workers between 18 and 28 who seemed nice enough, though I couldn’t help but wonder if they wanted to be somewhere else in some other dream. It was a family affair whose energy radiated from the mother’s smile. She stood closest to the street preparing the cold pasta salads. Her brown-edged teeth and rounded figure hardly shaded her sympathetic welcoming. She smiled often at me, perhaps because there really wasn’t much that could be said. Simplicity has its beauty.

A woman of roughly her age passed. Her legs were shaking, and her back was arched. She balanced on her shoulders two filled baskets to the brim and heavy with something. The weight of this burden forced her to walk clumsily and precariously, and yet she walked forward persistent in her task. Still, I could not help feeling the weight and struggle to her carrying-onward. Nor, it would seem, could my nameless Chinese mother of a thousand smiles and of a thousands know-not’s. She saw this woman and her shaking legs and her arched back. She felt the burden.

In a way, we forget the face, which grimaced in tired sweat, in seeing the burden and difficult precarity of the task. In a world of cars, trucks, carts, wheelbarrows, and a thousand other machinery to carry and move about the things around us, there is something absurd about a woman, a poor woman sans doute, struggling physically to move a few basket loads. There is something sad and disappointing about a world where some carry their things through this myriad of technological helping hands and other scarry them simply with their legs, shoulders, knees and bones. Shaking knees. Throbbing shoulders.

I was struck; struck by this moment and its sad absurdity, its stupid reality. I must be a thousand rungs up the social ladder here. My nameless and wordless Chinese mother seemed equally struck. While the burdened woman’s going was blocked from my view, she stared on as this woman’s shaky legs and burden passed. Her stare seemed to even pause in its looking, as if caught by a thought.

I couldn’t help but wonder if she too felt the sad absurdity of a such plight. She was probably only a few rungs up on the social ladder with a family to work and live for, but in seeing this burdened woman, did she not too feel close to such a possible life? Was she, like me, thinking sympathetically of other’s burden?

I can hardly communicate with the world around me here. Most of my communication is through gestures and hopefully-understood guesses. I look, smell, and try to hear. But much is beyond my assumption-filled understanding. Yet, here in this moment of a human burdened by that which does not necessarily have to be, did we not both feel something of the same thing? In spite of languages and histories that separate us, did we not both feel the same heaviness of the woman’s burden? Did we, could we share the same sympathy for another person’s plight?

I just don’t know, though I hope so.

Can we ever really be sure, even when are languages and histories are the same, that you and I see, the same thing, feel the same thing, understand the same thing? For now, I can only hope unknowingly that such a moment carried with it a wordless sharing and maybe a universal recognition to something of the same truth.

When I left after eating, I found the same previously burdened woman a block later, her shoulders echoing of the former task. Her burden was on the ground, and she was crouched down unwrapping the thin, white paper. They were grapes. Her shaking knees had been carrying grapes. Had my nameless Chinese mother been simply thinking of grapes?

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