What birds see below

MARCH 16 ― As a student studying abroad, I daydream often. Outside the window of my room, there is a car park, green garbage containers and more student accommodation being built. But on clear sunny days, blue skies make Coventry feel less grey and gritty, and the birds above more free.

It would be nice to fly, wouldn’t it? I know, we already can. Airplanes, disposable rockets, reusable rockets... but it would be different to have wings, to be a bird, wouldn’t it? The rush of wind, the adrenaline of diving down and stopping at the last second, the routine of eating, shitting, flying. How complicated our lives are in comparison!

Yet, consider what birds think when they see the grids of grey, the lights of curving highways below, and the social order behind it that made such a view possible.

Since humans are sociable, interactive beings, trust plays an important role in our social order. Societies with low trust cultures are associated with high crime, high corruption, and low income. Cheating, lying, betraying others...  all in the name of survival. Devious methods are just part and parcel of the game.

Perhaps this was the norm for Syafiq. After a Malaysian clubbing event, hunger brought us to McDonald’s. When Syafiq randomly sat down with his burger, wide-eyed and eager for conversation, the chatter at the table paused.

None of us knew him, or the school he mentioned in his opening line as he plumped himself down on a seat at our table uninvited. Who is this guy?

At first I thought he wanted to be friends (because we were Malaysian?) and if that was so, it would have been awkward at first but when were we ever not?

But as the night grew late, he expressed wonder at the small things we said, of the friends he did not know. All of it felt awkward and artificial. Eventually his friendly façade gave way to the real reason why he came and sat with us: sharing a taxi home is cheaper.

Was he even genuine about wanting to be friends? I don’t know. When people have hidden motives, they try to not let you know about it. An example is when people ask leading questions to solicit information. You would really rather they be honest about what they want, and if you sense they would rather not be direct, there is a reason. 

Although I felt similarly of Syafiq, I wonder if he thought of us as strangers ― unforgiving and unhelpful ― and so had to hide his intention of sharing a taxi under the guise of friendliness. Why did he not just ask?

In Malaysia and everywhere else, we hardly help strangers because they lie. Very often, it is because of money. But it is also because they know we would not help them, giving them reason to be devious.

Is this why Syafiq had to act friendly and overly interested in our lives? Did he really think we would not agree to share a ride with him? Even if we were not friends?

Though I preferred him to be direct, this also hints at how low trust cultures stay with us even if we are immersed in developed countries that have more trust.

In fact, this was one focus of Paul Collier’s book Exodus. It is in how we lock our cars when we see an Indian man approaching at night, how my parents freaked out when a cannabis peddler approached me in Barcelona, and how we ignore beggars from “charities” who ask for money at kopitiams or hawker stalls.

Yes, violent Indian gangs exist, drug peddlers implicate innocent people, and charities can be illegitimate. But blaming individual character and ignoring the circumstances of the order we live by is too easy. Poor circumstances affect trust, and trust affects our circumstances.

That this relationship goes both ways makes it more difficult for us to be trusting of others, even if we know we have prejudices. If another Syafiq reappeared, I would probably be unfriendly, yet hate myself if I refused to share a cab home with this eager stranger.

But above all, I would really rather him ask me flat out, instead of putting up a façade. I was furious that night, but maybe it was best to have played along. (Though it remains dubious how he managed to get into the club, eat supper, and showed us he had two quid left in his bank account without having enough for an Uber.)

Unavoidably, it is challenging to change the way we trust others with our prejudices. If we see a person coming from an unknown charity asking us to donate money for kids, how do we know she is not lying? Do we continue eating? Do we donate? How do we not get tricked again?

Consider that economic growth can nurture trust well; and a mix of the rule of law and social welfare system, even better! But we have to do our part too. Promote awareness of Indian gangs without bias against all Indians. Be aware of cannabis usage in Europe. Get involved in the regulatory oversight of charities.

Get involved ― nurturing trust is worthwhile. Consider this next time the sun is up and the skies are clear. We marvel at how birds fly high and freely, but every day they see how capable we can be.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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