Yesterday afternoon, as I rode back from Manhattan to Brooklyn to pick up my daughter from daycare, I noticed three children board the subway car I was seated in. One of them was a friend’s son, all of nine years old; he was accompanied by two younger children. An older woman, clearly their chaperone or caretaker, stood near by. I smiled in recognition (even as the young lad’s back was turned to me) and thought of standing up and walking over to say ‘hi.’ But I didn’t.
A sudden doubt–followed by apprehension–had afflicted me. It had been a few months since I had seen young ‘E’; my time with him then had limited, as he had spent most of his time then playing with several other children; indeed, in general, I had only had limited contact with him over the past few years, and I was not entirely sure whether he would recognize me instantly if I greeted him. My knowledge of his name would reassure him that I was not a perfect stranger but that delayed recognition could be problematic. For ‘E’ was not alone; he was escorted by an adult, one who would not find too palatable the the idea of an strange man on the subway striking up a conversation with her ward. Of course, I would be able to name ‘E’s parents, and talk about them in familiar terms, and convince her–and perhaps ‘E’ as well–that all was well, but that initial minute held out of the promise of being excruciatingly uncomfortable.
I stayed quiet and remained sitting in my seat. If ‘E’ had turned and recognized me, I would have responded to his greeting; but I was not about to initiate contact. I contented myself with the thought that I would write to his mother later in the day, saying something like “Guess what? I saw ‘E’ on the Q train today, riding back home.’
My reticence reminded me of a cultural lesson that I had been instructed to imbibe before I migrated to the US from India almost three decades ago. Those who had been to the US before me–high school and college mates who had begun their studies there–had warned me that my cultural predilection for greeting and talking to the children of perfect strangers in public spaces would have to be attenuated by some realities of American life: American parents did not approve of such contact; it was considered a social taboo; and woe betide you if some parent caught you talking, no matter how innocently, with their unescorted child. In Indian public spaces, it was common for strangers to talk to the children of other strangers and sometimes even display a kind of cheek-pulling affection; such behavior would not go down well in American precincts. Keep your assessments of cuteness to yourself; resist the temptation to spark up conversations with a toddler; and so on.
I listened, and I internalized those lessons. I do not talk to a child unless the parent is present. (Even when I escort my daughter to the local playgrounds; once a young girl began talking to me at a playground, and I walked away from her; perhaps an overreaction, but I was not about to take any chances.) Of course, I can empathize; after all, I’m a parent too. Still, there is occasion for some sadness here, that our societies are as afflicted as they are to make such caution necessary.