The other day, I ran into my tea seller on the street. I recognized his face immediately yet it took me a moment to place the man. How exactly did I know him? I had never before encountered the tea seller outside his teashop.
The man recognized me as well and greeted me in a shy, offhanded manner. A nod, a mumbled “Bonjour.” He was accompanied by, what I assumed, were his wife and their two children, a girl and a boy. The boy’s left arm was tucked in a caste on which his friends or classmates had written names and messages.
Seeing the tea seller with his family was slightly disturbing to me. Clearly, a tea seller has a life outside his teashop, but so far I had failed to imagine it. Do people simplify their lives, I wondered, by denying others the depth and duality they perceive in themselves? On my way home, I made a mental note to look at others from now on in a less self-centered way and see them as full-fletched people rather than flat characters who play a facilitating role in my life.
The next time I went into the teashop to buy an assortment of Japanese greens, I asked the tea seller about his son and his broken arm. The tea seller did not smile. In fact, he answered my question curtly and did not offer me a free tea sample as was his custom. His non-verbal message to me was clear: my life outside the teashop is none of your business. For his customers, the tea seller preferred to be nothing more than the tea seller.