02 August 2010

Meet and Greet

Sitting at the window seat of the train usually provides some interesting insights at human behavior. The other day, while the train was stopped because it was unloading passengers into Hudson station in Upstate New York, I saw people waiting at the platform already. No, I take that back, there was no platform. There was just a small building, and a covered area right next to it, aligned next to the railroad. The town looked small, so there wasn’t a big thing like the train stations of London or Paris or New York City. It was just a small shed next to the rails.

People were waiting for their loved ones. You can see the anticipation on their faces, scanning the open carriages to see where their loved ones would come out of (not all carriages are open since it was a small station anyway). They swing their heads back and forth, left and right, seeing where their husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, child, or any other relative would appear from.

I guess the interesting thing is when they finally appear. The faces change, quickly in fact, quick enough to register anticipation to happiness. I suppose the speed of the change is only dependent on how fast the optical input from the retina reaches the brain’s occipital lobe (responsible for visual processing), which is then transferred to the cingulate gyrus, located in the middle of the brain, responsible for higher-level cognitive processes such as emotion (ie., happiness), which then sends a series of commands to the primary motor cortex, commanding the facial muscles to move and make a smile. This whole process happens within milliseconds.

Another interesting thing that I observed is the ways that the greeters interact with their greetees. People who perhaps are in a sexual relationship with each other are the most amusing to watch: I saw a guy play with his girlfriend’s hair, pulling it back and combing it with his fingers, while holding a gaze. Surprising though is the fact that he didn’t attempt to carry any of the three bags that the girl was strapping all over her tiny body. Another couple gave each other several kisses, I counted at least five. A mother-and-son duo gave each other a big hug. And a father immediately messed up his little son’s hair the moment the kid stepped on to the pavement.

As an ending to this vignette, it dawned on me that perhaps if not for the fact that the world is getting smaller and smaller and that travel becomes inevitable to almost everyone, then we wouldn’t be witness to these small details about human behavior. I could imagine communities of humans who have continually lived in the same place as their forefathers, who never had the need to say goodbye and hello again after a brief absence. In fact, looking back, the only time I ever receive a hug from my parents is when I either arrive or get dropped off at the airport. Hugs were never part of my standard emotional repertoire when we were still all together in one roof and growing up.

(Temple Walls, from my Qorikancha Series)


  1. I noticed the same thing at the airport, when you walked from the customs to arrivals. People faces just light up when they see their loved ones waiting for them!

  2. Zhu,

    Indeed! And it's very interesting to watch!