Though it happened over thirty years ago, I remember it clear as yesterday. My wife and I were in Kyoto, at the end of our time and money after ten months of travel. We patched together a modest lunch and found a curb on a quiet street to sit and eat. Across the street, a woman was sweeping in front of her house and when she saw us, started motioning to us energetically. Was she telling us to get out? While we were puzzling over the gesture, she went into her house. Again, we could only wonder. Was she calling the police? Getting her sumo wrestler husband? She emerged again with something in her hands, crossed the street and set down two little milk bottles filled with green tea. She gestured for us to drink and then return the bottles when we were done and re-crossed the street to continue sweeping.
Before this memorable trip around the world, we would have been stunned. But by now, we had enough stories about such unexpected acts of kindness to simply shrug our shoulders and think, “Here we go again. A woman sees us eating lunch without something to drink and jumps to our rescue without a moment’s hesitation. And we will probably remember this simple act for the rest of our lives.”
And indeed, we did. I thought of it today eating another round of inari sushi, soba noodles and mochi on a bench in Ueno Park. I didn’t have anything to drink, so I looked around to see if this woman would appear. Ha ha! Of course, one can never plan for such acts or expect them or wish for them— they appear like a welcome breeze on a hot day, a spot of sun after much rain, a shooting star across the night sky.
“Random acts of kindness,” like “it takes a whole village to raise a child” and other such bumper sticker sayings, is a truth trampled to death in cliché. Our muscular, practical and organized American way would have us join the Random Acts Club, pay some dues, chat on the Website, buy the spin-off products and log our daily acts on the giant thermometer of our Million-Act goal. But even clichéd truths are still true.
So after thinking again of this woman, of her simple but profound act of pouring some tea in a milk bottle and setting it at our feet, I set off to a vending machine to get some green tea. Not quite the same, but it still was refreshing.