Stranger Experiments

Experiment #1: Day of No Strangers

Find out the first name of every person you interact with for an entire day (including, but not limited to: the librarian, the homeless woman, the janitor, and the gentleman behind you in line.) Ideally you will also determine where they were born and what winter was like there. If this is a person you interact with regularly, remember his or her name. (Tomorrow will be a day of fewer strangers.)

Experiment #2: Day of Only Strangers

Wear an inconspicuous disguise and go about your daily routine. Do not speak up at times when you usually would. Eat your meals alone or at a large table in a cafeteria with people you don't know. What does your silence sound like? You may also choose to go to a place where you don't speak the language or where you speak at the level of a kindergartener. Now what does your silence sound like? How do mouths look when they are just making noises?

Experiment #3: Intimate Stranger

Take off your clothes in the presence of a stranger. Do not use your real name. Do use protection. Without your identity are you more or less naked?

Experiment #4: 'Real' Strangers

At night, listen to the loved ones in your kitchen as if they are on the radio. If you happen to bump into them in the hallway, pretend they're on TV. Practice looking at your friends from far away, notice how their clothes drape on them and how you never saw it before.

Choose a reality TV show- "seven strangers, picked to live in a house…"- and watch it every week. How long does it take you to 'know' these 'real' people, and to grow accustomed to watching them without being seen? They know you're out there, but they'll never know you. Without the reciprocal gaze are you still strangers or something less?

Experiment #5: Guarding Strangers

Spend the summer working as a lifeguard at a local pool. Capitalize on the fact that you are required by your job to stare at people. Listen to their conversations from the neutralizing height of the guard chair. Mask the intensity of your eavesdropping behind dark sunglasses. Grow accustomed to watching without being seen; guard your strangeness. Learn the names of all the regulars, and be startled when they ask you yours. Watch these strangers vigilantly. Be constantly prepared to save their lives.

Experiment #6: Beating up a Stranger

Tell the story about how a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

Experiment #7: Killing a Stranger

View an execution. If you are in the United States, this may have to be a hypothetical experiment: the last legal public execution in the US-a hanging, outdoors, replete with reporters and an angry mob-was in Kentucky, in 1936, a man convicted of raping and killing a 70-year-old woman. American executions are now conducted behind closed doors. What kind of example do closed doors set? Timothy McVeigh was killed on closed-circuit television for victims whose families lost the lottery to be physically present, but that's as close to public as it gets these days. Strangers are no longer allowed at a killing.

For the sake of the experiment, there are some alternatives to actually attending an execution: for example, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a page on its website with links to information about each executed prisoner since 1982, including his crime and his final statement, and often a picture.[1] You will find ample material there for imagining the event. Alternatively, if you have the gumption, there are amateur videos of countless public executions (in North Korea, in Iran…) easily found online.

Experiment #8: Mourning a Stranger

Find the obituaries section of the local paper and read the brief life stories of the recent dead. Note what these stories make you feel (Anything? What's the difference between an obit and a fiction?). Then select one of them, and attend the funeral (choose one that includes information about services.) At the funeral, behave with the utmost solemnity, so as not to appear a stranger to the deceased. Note how the funeral makes you feel. Is the deceased still a stranger once you have listened to his eulogy, once you've seen his children and their children in their pews?

Experiment #9: Praying With Strangers

Go to a strange church. Just follow along. When they say "let us pray" close your eyes. Pray, or feel the people around you praying (fidgeting, breathing). If you don't know how to pray, imagine what it sounds like inside the head of the person next to you. When you open your eyes look at each other lovingly.

Experiment #10: Praying to a Stranger

In a moment of total helplessness- "He is missing… He won't pick up the phone… No honey, there's nothing you can do, just sit tight…"- slide down onto the floor, close your eyes, be very still, and begin to think in imperatives. Make him safe, make him unharmed and harmless, find him, please let him be found, protect him, tell him I love him, please, be with him out there, be out there, be there, be, be… Don't stop to wonder whom you are talking to. Continue in this manner until you feel heard, or tired enough to sleep.

Experiment #11: Playing a Stranger

Choose a character quite unlike you. Memorize all his lines. Really get into the role. When you walk down the street, do it holding all of your character's baggage.

Experiment #12: Playing with Strangers

Create a cyberself in an online gaming community and develop at least three acquaintances with whom you play regularly (elf, warlock, demon-hunter). As you beat levels together, do you ever start to imagine your "friends" out there without their horns and wands?

Or join an online forum as someone you are not. (The online Hermit Crab Enthusiasts come highly recommended. Or, if you have the gumption, you may posture as the wife of a soldier in Iraq-they are supporting each other all over the internet.) If they believe you are one of them, have you served your purpose (group enthusiasm or group comfort, respectively)? Does it matter that one cannot corroborate the authenticity of cyberstrangers? The internet is a realm of only strangers. Situate yourself at random among them. "Friend" them.

Experiment #13: Solidarity with Strangers

Go through something with a bunch of strangers. Ideally your bus gets a flat tire on the interstate and you are stranded together by the side of the road for hours. Alternatively, attend a weekly meeting with other people who have survived what you have survived, but to whom you have no other connection. Introduce yourself: Hello, My Name Is, I too… I too… I too…

Experiment #14: Walking by a Stranger

Go on to tell what happened next on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, how a priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

Experiment #15: Writing to a Stranger

Look in the phone book and choose an address and a name at random. Compose a very non-threatening letter in which you propose beginning a correspondence. (Ideally you have a PO Box and so do they, so as to avoid surrendering/invading domestic privacy.) Start with the banalities of new friendship, tell him about the conversation you overheard at the coffee shop, the way your injury hurts before a rain storm. If things are going well, tell him a secret. Do not tell him your full name, where you are from, or where you are going. Good strangers are hard to find; if you can, try to maintain a long-term strangership.

Experiment #16: Cheering with Strangers

When you move to a new city, begin to follow the biggest sports team. Buy the appropriate paraphernalia (cap, jersey) and don it on game day, alone in your living room-DO NOT got to the bar until you know every player's name. Learn to roll your eyes with the weary patience of the virgin mother: "They just had to pitch Biggums into the ninth." When you find yourself waking up mornings to read the summary of the game you watched the night before, then you are ready to cheer in public. Stand around with the other fans and make occasional eye contact (even if you are all looking at the television, it should feel looking like into each others' eyes.) In moments of great jubilation or disappointment, you may touch one another.

Experiment #17: Touching a Stranger

Mentally catalogue your physical contact with strangers throughout the day. Try to be a little more forward than usual. Shoulders touching on the subway, hands brushing in the passing of money, elbows contiguous on the elbowrests at the movies. Later, in bed, rapidly replay these encounters until your body buzzes with the memory of tiny trysts. (Conversely, go an entire day without being touched.)

Experiment #18: Holding a Stranger

Volunteer to hold infants at the local hospital. (An orphaned or abandoned newborn will not thrive if it is deprived of physical contact in its first few days. Volunteers are called "baby cuddlers." You simply hold a baby. That it may thrive. Such opportunities abound.)

Experiment #19: Stopping for a Stranger

If anyone is still listening, tell of how finally one traveler came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."

Experiment #20: Go

And do likewise.


Talking to Strangers

In French, the dead are always dying. Elle est morte means She is dead, if it is read as subject (she) + verb (is) + adjective (dead). But the same phrase also forms the past tense of the verb "to die" and so simultaneously activates the corpse: She died. These meanings seem to converge around the moment of death, at the scene of an accident perhaps: someone kneels beside the victim and places two fingers against the side of her neck, bystanders hold their breath, he looks up with a sigh: Elle est morte, he announces, she is dead/she died… Years later someone will ask her nephew, Whatever happened to your Auntie Marie? And his reply will resurrect her: Elle est morte, she is dead (and) she died. The phrase is both a statement of fact and a story, for the latter meaning implies a narrative. When did she die? His friend presses, And how? To elaborate, the nephew must repeat the phrase: Elle est morte-she died and she is dead- two years ago, when a minivan mowed down her motorbike. Time of death is vague in French, one sentence combining the eternal fact that she is dead with the knowledge that at a specific moment, an essential transition point, she- a once active subject- died.

Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte. Today, mother is dead. Mother died today. Is it because one is always doomed to read foreign languages a bit too literally that these versions of the first sentence of Albert Camus' L'étranger, always compete in my head? Translators of the novel invariably render the latter, Mother died today, the version that implies a narrative. And yet the story of her death is nowhere in the book (the first chapter is an account of her funeral, and then she basically disappears from the story.) Regardless of dominant grammar, it is the fact of her death that is relevant, to her son, Meursault, the narrator, and to the novel as a whole. Today she is dead, and from this sentence every yesterday rolls out behind the novel in contrast, to a time when she was not dead, while every tomorrow is suddenly condemned to its verdict. For Meursault, Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte could now be the first statement of every day: today, as it has been each day since she died, Mother is dead. Furthermore, Meursault himself does not know the exact day of her death (the telegram he receives tells him only "Mother deceased.") So the double meaning of the first sentence is compounded by the second: "Or yesterday, maybe, I don't know." Neither Meursault nor the reader can be sure whether Maman died today, but it is certain that today, she is dead. And this is what matters.

When Americans say "a stranger", we usually mean a person we do not know. We tell our children not to talk to strangers, but this does not imply a character judgment: children are not expected to evaluate a person's strangeness, they must simply evaluate his familiarity. The French word for this kind of stranger is an inconnu, an unknown one. You pass an inconnu on the street, you hand him a dollar at the mini-mart when you buy a candy bar. Un étranger is something more profound.

If a city person moves to a rural village, he might say he feels like an étranger to his neighbors in his new neighborhood, with its abundance of animals and slower-moving people. The French word for foreigner is étranger, and when you are traveling abroad you are à l'étranger. An étranger can be an unknown person, but he is more often an outsider, someone without ties to Here. Evidently, the English stranger has wandered farther from our word strange than the French étranger from his étrange, which means (like ours) bizarre, alien, unusual. Our stranger is not necessarily strange, but the French étranger carries l'étrange on his linguistic shoulders. So English readers pick up the story of Meursault as if they are passing him, neutrally, on the street, for Camus' novel is almost always translated as The Stranger. But L'étranger is stranger than that, he is not merely l'inconnu, that someone against whom we idiomatically caution our children, he is an outsider and through him every reader becomes one too. By the end of the book, we are all estranged.

Often I was speechless. Every morning I awoke with the taste of English in my mouth from dreaming of home. Bonjour! I spat into the sink while I brushed my teeth, forcing it to be true: this would be a good day, and it would be all in French. Donning a new language every morning, cramming my feet into the workboots of unfamiliar syntax: Oui, j'ai très bien dormi- yes, I very well slept- malgré qu'il faisait froid!- despite that he was making cold! (He, in this case, is the universe, he is the weather-doer; in French, meteorology is gendered and willful. We say: It's nice out today. They say: Il fait beau. He makes beautiful.)

I had been there for two days when things started dying; first the dog, then a chicken, a sick pig, the ewe in the river. Death left me at a loss for words; I'd never been taught condolences in this language. A farmer's work dog is both pet and partner, so when I found him kneeling above her body, where it lay in a creeping pool of expelled feces (it had been a sudden and violent illness), I felt as though I'd walked in on a wake. Noël waved a finger in front of her eyes, and when they did not follow it he placed his palm across her chest and sat very still. (He did not have to say elle est morte, it was understood in the stillness, in the unmoving eyes.) He felt me there, but did not speak. I was panicking. What does one say at such a moment? I did not know this language well enough to drape words over a corpse. Désolé, désolé… the word for sorry kept creeping up my throat, but I swallowed and reswallowed it- I worried that I would cheapen the moment if I spoke the same word you use when you're five minutes late to meet someone (Désolé, j'ai raté le bus- Sorry, I missed the bus.) The false cognate of the word, of course, fit the moment quite well, but Noël did not speak English and wouldn't have realized the desolation inherent in my speaking it. Every alternative sentence seemed a clumsy cannon poised to shatter the solemnity of our vigil. So I simply froze beside him. And we were quiet for many minutes.

There was also a wedding, and I met the bride one morning a few days later. This is the bride! I was told. And I lit up idiotically: Oh! Again the panic: I did not know the passwords one uses at these gateways of language, the phrases we hang as garlands around weddings and funerals. All I could hear was the easy English word honking away like a recorded Hallmark card- CONGRATULATIONS, the ritual utterance.

After a frozen moment, I took the long way around. Sorry, I said, blushing, Désolé. I am happy for you, but I'll admit I do not know the words one uses to say it.

The bride laughed: Usually they say "Félicitations!" But to tell you the truth, I've heard that word so much this week that I'm well tired of it. My stammering had turned out to be more earnest than the rote call-and-response of native social interactions. I was l'étrangère, and because of this I spoke more truly. I was l'étrangère above the corpse too, and because of this I was silent, which is the way you should be when a good dog est morte.

A few weeks later I invented the word fortitude. Actually, I was trying to speak about fortitude, and lazily applied a French accent, hoping the idea would translate. (I had been talking with a French woman, Nat, about Hillary Clinton. Fortitude was my word for the way she had carried herself under the onslaught of gendered punditry, in the face of ubiquitous comparisons to a nagging wife, her ability to ignore how the word "bitch" caught onto her skirtsuits like a burr. I did not try to explain the word bitch. This was after Clinton had conceded to and endorsed Obama, but I was still feeling shaken by what her candidacy had shown me about the caricature that female politicians so often become in my country.) When I said fortitude I meant it in the English sense, I meant that even in defeat Clinton remained solid, fort-like. But I also meant it with the French strength, fort. Nat smiled to herself and jotted it down. She understood the "strong" I was looking for, and told me my invention was nice, fortitude comme ça, c'est beau. It turns out that fortitude in French means courage, which, on reflection, also applied. The word I was looking for was la force, which works in both tongues too.

These are the riches available to the linguistic stranger. Words are equal in her lexicon, they come without their history. The longer you live in a language, the more you learn the hidden hierarchy of diction, the kneejerk ejaculations of comfort or praise. The stranger invents meanings.

I am planning my next Stranger Trip. It must happen in a city where no one loves me. It should start on a bus full of people I don't know, but to whom I am related by a shared destination. Here is what I will not bring: a telephone (no one calls the stranger.) Headphones (inside headphones you're not a stranger, you're just alone.) A guidebook (a city is not a buffet, it is a jungle. I've come for the prowl.)

Here is my itinerary: make eye contact on the street and wonder whether they know about you. Notice the way lips move in this city. Become very conscious of your attire, does it give you away? Feel naked when you talk to the waiter, lacking, as you do, the comfortable local cloth around your words. Gather the courage to buy a newspaper, attempt to peruse it in public with native nonchalance. Later, in bed, rapidly replay your encounters until your body buzzes with the memory of tiny trysts.

I will let the new city undress me. I will seek radical strangerhood.


Intimate Stranger

That evening Marie came by and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her. 'So why marry me, then?' she said. I explained to her that it didn't really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Besides, she was the one who was doing all the asking and all I was saying was yes.

- Meursault

When I am not the stranger, I am often encountering him. The stranger is among us; it is a word that requires proximity. "The inhabitants of Sirius are not exactly strangers to us," wrote Georg Simmel, on the sociology of the stranger. "…they do not exist for us at all; they are beyond far and near." Let us pause with this notion. When we envision our planet, the nations and their peoples, it is not a planet full of strangers. The remoteness of Others makes them ideas, planets of their own. It is only in contact that we distinguish ourselves; the stranger only materializes when He gets off the boat, or over the fence. Then he is in our circle (our country, our town, our culture, our language) but he is concentric, both a part and apart. Strangeness, strangely, is intimate this way.

Falling in love with a foreigner is strange, but mostly because it is only really strange outdoors. Indoors it is just two people on a bed. A bed is a country of its own, on a bed there is no outsider. My love was an inconnu, and I his inconnue, and we began to introduce ourselves. When I give you a plastic panda bear it means I was in a train station gift shop and spent every moment kissing you in my mind he translated himself. And I replied you must guard the knowledge of my love of dawn and recognize the devotion in my lying awake on the pillow beside your sleeping face long into late morning, just so that I can be the first thing you see when you awake. The romance of plastic objects and surrendered dawns. This was not a foreign exchange, we spread out across the map of bedsheets and engaged in domestic affairs. (I did learn to ask for kisses in his language. Popo hejoe. A kiss every time. I learned it so well that to this day I have to stop myself from asking it of other men who do not speak Korean. He trimmed the edges of love's dialogue with syllables so pure of meaning for me that they came to be synonyms of emotion. I am still learning how to ask for kisses in English. I also came to prefer his word for I love you because it sounded more sincere, and because I had said I love you before (to my mother, to my dad), but I had never felt this before. Saranghae. A foreign word for a foreign feeling.

I often lay listening to him talk to his mother on the phone, startled by his sudden ease and gentle power speaking natively. I had the privilege of nativity in the language where we met. So I must acknowledge, even here as I call our bed domestic, that the primary landscape of our knowing each other was mine and our forays into his language mere sightseeing. Language occasionally reminded us of the distance between our mother's houses, of how they would have no words to share if they were face-to-face. Yet this knowledge was rarely agonistic; we often spoke a word back and forth to one another, bouncing it around in both languages until it became newly familiar. There was excitement and intimacy in explaining a word that I would usually pass on the street without thought. For example, to me the word cute was cutesy; to him it was innocence, pureness, beauty untainted by aspiration- perhaps this exists in Korean. From him I learned cute anew, and now I use it often.)

At any rate, outdoors, on an American street in an American city, he was an actual stranger, an étranger. And I, his lover, became a stranger too, even though I was born here. It was cold and raining, but the only open business was a loud sports bar full of white people and we (the strangeness transferred in the holding of hands) stuck out, and so stayed outside, damp and alien. When we were finally in bed again, the strangeness lingered. Do all men in his country use gifts as stand-ins for love? Do all American women grow cold and self-concerned when the sun comes up? We often trembled in the shadow of these questions. Could we actually love if we were so easily estranged?

…it didn't mean anything but I probably didn't love her.Meursault cannot love, he can only gesture. Yes I will marry you Marie, I will be your mari. (A French man gains another identity when he marries, he is both man, homme, and husband, mari. A French woman, on the other hand is always woman, femme. When she marries, she is just woman in the possessive, she is his femme. Woman waits around for him; he picks up the new title like a dowry.) But I probably didn't love her. This is where he remains The Stranger. For in love we leave our stranger in a pile at the foot of the bed. This nakedness is a relief, in that walking through a crowd together or lying on a bed in an apartment building full of people, you are with someone who can always identify you. Before love you were a passerby, you were unknown, inconnu- in love, one is known. (It fits to use this word biblically.) Of course, inherent in this recognition is the solidity of a gaze and its object, the reminder that every gasp of unity begins with two strangers coming together and ends with them lying side by side. According to Hegel, recognition is a death struggle; how much more dangerous it is without clothes on. Meursault is eager to take off his clothes with Marie, to lie brown bodied in the afternoon sun, but he will not remove the boundary that keeps him foreign. It makes no difference to him if the title of their relationship changes, if he becomes Marie's mari, so long as it does not involve the shift of identity that love requires, the optimism of believing two people can ever stop being strangers to one another. Apparently his very indifference, his Strangeness is what draws Marie to him most:

Then she said she wondered if she loved me, and there was no way I could know about that. After another moment's silence, she mumbled that I was peculiar, that that was probably why she loved me…

Meursault is not intimate. (Except, perhaps, with the reader. But the reader never asks for love. Text is a good prophylactic.) There is a kind of terror in finding oneself known. Better, sometimes, to stay strangers.

One night we felt full of unspeakable confessions. (He was to leave for his military service in three months, but the words we most wanted to say had the ring of chisels in granite. We were in a love that could never translate over a distance the diameter of the earth- perhaps no love can- but nevertheless turned to gibberish at the thought of ending, a gibberish we filled those months with.) But one night the silence was long and pressed hard against the dam of our restraint. Suddenly he grabbed my face and it was torrents of Korean that came out; somehow I knew every word he was saying, ten thousand proposals, ten thousand vows. He spoke like he was falling out of a plane. I knew the language of plummeting. When he stopped, I found myself replying in French, and from the safety of a strange tongue, into the void of the untranslated, I spoke love recklessly, armorless… et moi aussi, je me jette contre la porte de nos recirc;ves, je l'ouverte avec l'innocence d'une petite fille dans la maison de ses poupées, nous ne sommes qu'ici, mon amour, et ici on peut aimer comme c'est pour toujours, mecirc;me si en anglais il faut éviter les aveus qui peuvent nous rendre vulnérable, qui peuvent devenir le vent volant les feuilles de nos arbres, je suis à toi, j'suis toi, mon amour, toujours toujours toujours… For the first time I was speaking love without the lockjaw of my traumas (which had all been inflicted in English, my mother and father yelling at each other behind a closed door.) French was guilty of no betrayals, so I spoke like fresh sheets. I dream your children into my womb, I said, I dream my gray hair between your fingers.

We went back and forth like that for a long time, speaking the languages we didn't share. When it was over it was as if we'd been drowning in the flood of these illicit thoughts and had finally burst above water. Only a babel could express the way love sounds when its doomed. We had never been so frank. We had never been so understood. We lay together, radically foreign, relieved of our intimacy.


'Real' Strangers

Camus did not watch reality television. But he did muse about how the artist might capture reality:

What is more real, for instance, in our universe, than a man's life, and how can we hope to preserve it better than in a realistic film? But under what circumstances is such a film possible? Under purely imaginary conditions. We should have to presuppose, in fact, an ideal camera focused on the man day and night and constantly registering his every move. The very projection of such a film would last a lifetime and could be seen only by an audience of people willing to waste their lives in watching someone else's life in great detail.

(from Resistance, Rebellion and Death)

As it turns out, such an audience exists; Camus prophesied The Real World and its relatives(which are, of course, a bit more edited than his 'purely imaginary' film, but e


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