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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Talking to strangers

Perhaps a month ago I discovered the 100 Strangers project on flickr, joined and until now have submitted nothing. Why? I tell myself if I was in Thailand or Cambodia people often make eye contact. Assuming they speak English or I speak a little of their language, it is easy to get a conversation going. I've spent most of this year in Malaysia and I find that, while there are exceptions, it is less common for people to make eye contact or chat with a stranger. There is someone I've known here for the whole of this year and when we have a conversation she still has difficulty with eye contact. I'm told she's a little afraid that she may get out of her depth with English.

All this has taught me something about myself. I have difficulty speaking with someone who is not making eye contact with me.

I asked a friend, 'What do I do? I look at someone but they avoid my gaze.' My friend suggested I simply say 'Hello, may I take your picture' and hope they understand English.

In Penang there are some old jetties on the waterfront close to the centre of Georgetown. Each one belongs to a particular Chinese clan. There are wooden houses built on stumps over the water. This is on the Western side of Penang Island which is close to the Malaysian mainland so the sea is usually fairly calm. The houses are connected to each other and the island by the jetties. Each one is like a self-contained village.

They have shops, temples and on some, tourists can even find accommodation.

I've never visited these jetties before and have intended to do so with my camera. So one Sunday recently we headed off. First we found the Lim family jetty. It was fairly quiet and we walked right to the end where there was a fisherman repairing a fish trap. We watched for a while and a few pleasant words were exchanged and I decided this man could be my first stranger in the project.

Lim Kah Soo is a resident of the Lim family jetty. He uses the traps he was repairing to catch grouper. We occasionally buy grouper from the local market. Perhaps he caught it. He was a friendly guy and even said that if we returned some time perhaps he could take us out in his boat.

Shortly another man turned up, greeted his friend the fisherman and said 'hello' to us also.

'Are you a fisherman too?' I asked.

'No. I'm retired. He's my friend. I've just come to visit.'

'Do you live on this jetty?'

'No, I live a long way out.'

I asked if I could take his photo and put it on the internet. He was happy about that. I figured this guy to be just a little older then me. I'm 63. But it is more challenging here for someone of that age to retire. 'How old are you?' I enquired.

His name is Yeoh Hock Hoe and he told me that he is 82.

'I hope I can look as healthy as you do when I reach 82,' I said.

Now I have my second stranger and I'm feeling more confident about this project.

As I add more pictures to the 100 Strangers project, you'll find them here. Find out more about the project and see pictures taken by other photographers here.

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