Tired of ‘stranger danger’ mentality

Zachary Phillips


As the train came to a screeching halt, hoards of men rose to meet it like ocean-tide on rocks. No one had told me that riding a train in Kolkata required a pair of brass knuckles, but I was quickly learning it the hard way.


This was my stop, and missing it meant an extra hour of shoulder-to-shoulder train rides. Unfortunately, that meant little to the flood of commuters thundering into the car.


After making several attempts at penetrating the wall of bodies, I had resigned myself to a night full of train hopping my way back to the apartment.


The locals around me, however, weren’t so easily discouraged.


“Dum Dum Cantonement?” he asked. I nodded, my apartment was right next to the Cantonement tracks. Before I knew it, ten sets of hands were at my back and an army of voices rang out for my cause.


“Cantonement! Cantonement!” was all that I heard as the sea of men parted and the tides reversed. Reaching the edge of the car as the train’s forward crawl turned into a steady saunter, my nerves took hold.


It was fight, or flight. Jump, or stay. I’m still not really sure what I would have chosen, because someone from behind decided to make the decision for me. A quick push from the back sent me out of the train car, and my feet landed firmly, yet gracelessly, on the platform. This was my first introduction to the kindness of Kolkatan strangers.


Growing up in America, I was taught from an early age that strangers are bad news. Big white vans, “free candy” signs, that leathery old guy in short shorts walking a puppy; I knew the signs of a stranger up to no good.


Even after leaving for college, I still held on to remnants from a childhood of stranger stigmatization. Ask for directions? Nope. Ask someone for the time? Fat chance. Ask a classmate for some paper? Only if I want my reputation marred for life.


Spending a summer abroad in Kolkata, India, was like ripping the band-aid off of a gash carved by self-reliance. From riding the train, to navigating the streets, to buying lunch, getting through a single day in Kolkata was a team effort—and by team I mean myself and any stranger within view.

Adjusting back to the cold indifference of American strangers was a rude awakening. One would think that after a summer in Kolkata, navigating the streets of Santa Monica would be a breeze.

Quite the opposite. Getting a stranger to stop and give me directions was like catching smoke with my hands.

Although it was oftentimes aggressive and frightening, I sorely miss the kindness of Kolkatan strangers. I’d take a violent tidal wave of helping hands over sun-tanned indifference any day.

Zachary Phillips can be reached at
[email protected] or @ZachSPhillips on Twitter.