A-Broader Perspective

Conor Tucker

The sun is shining, which is a blessing of its own right in London. I’m sitting on the steps of the British Museum, staring out across at a courtyard of people. The people seem to converge on the gates and surge toward the large Greek pillars as a single mass. Inevitably, with a sort of comic irony, they are met under the pillars by the latest museum offal, and no sooner has the momentum shifted than a wave identical in all but individuals surges out past the gates again. Eddies of stragglers linger on the benches, on the stairs, next to the giant picture of the Terracotta General, around the street vender selling roasted chestnuts, or in the Starbucks across the street. If ever there was an international constant…

People-watching is fun. It’s something I learned under the tutelage of a friend in the balcony seats of Frank and am working on perfecting on the steps of the Museum. It’s not hard: all it requires is a keen eye to notice the little things. Like the fact that the group of Asian tourists think the city is dirty; they spread out brochures under themselves before they sat on the steps. Or that the group of children playing hide and seek on the benches are probably siblings; they have matching coats. Or that the woman sitting below me on the steps is lonely and seems to have been waiting for someone; she’s smoking a cigarette over her cooled coffee, searching the faces of the oncoming wave.

Things are different at Colgate. My assumptions are simpler: like the fact that it is Wednesday; Uggs and spandex seems to have come into style. My horizon is not as wide: I can count four different languages being spoken in my vicinity. My bubble is smaller.

I like a lot about being in London. For starters, the city is starkly beautiful and richly historical. I’m sitting on wide marble steps under a panorama of Greek stone figures, part of a building commissioned by the Duke of Montagu in 1676. Across the city to my left is St. Paul’s, a cathedral rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire of 1666. To my right at the distance of about a mile is Westminster Abby, built by Edward the Confessor in 1065. Continuing, I can legally drink. Pubbing around the city provides a panorama of human existence, from the locals at The Plough and The College Arms to the tourists at Night and Day and O’Neill’s. But, all this considered, my favorite part of this city is that it is truly international. When I walk to school I pass a Kabaab restaurant run by Iranians and a cafĂ© run by Greeks. In Sainsbury’s (a local grocery store) I would count it an odd day if I heard less than three languages. On the Underground it is more common to encounter turbans, burkkas, and veils than hair. London, since the 1550s, has had a large and vibrant immigrant population – and to my knowledge is a more tolerant melting-pot than America has the pretension to assume unto itself.

That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist here, because it does. One of the first nights I was here I heard a bouncer called a “Paki” by a drunken woman (he was of Middle-Eastern descent – and the swear is the rough equivalent of “nigger”). But racism competes here with other types of “isms” – sexism and classism especially. And I have not witnessed as much of it here as I have in my racially divided southern-California home, nor even the Democratic primary. Then again, perhaps it just isn’t evident from my steps.

But what is clearly laid out before me is a sea of internationals – here by immigration or tourism – and, for a people-watcher, this is a smorgasbord of entertainment. The languages, the faces, the laughter, the children, the inexorable rising tide aimed at the same object – whether for visitation or research – of learning at the Museum. It is a nice cross-section of human society. But if people-watching is in the details, then the fact that the crowd is mostly made up of pairs is an interesting find. From this, we can take two assumptions: either (a) human beings naturally gravitate towards their own, or (b) that human beings are truly social animals and prefer companionship and cooperation to solitude. I’m an optimist, so I’ll contend the latter – but the number of inter-racial pairs is astounding and will support me beyond personal philosophic outlook. I hesitate to make this a universal assumption only because I’m wary of universals – but it seems the sociability and common-aim are world values.

Assumptions like these are what make people-watching worthwhile. It gives me hope that societal divisions are imposed and not natural. That human beings would rather work together than apart. That smaller social networks are but parts in a constant sea. But, then again, what it also shows me is that what we learn from people watching is that we – as humans – don’t learn from people watching. That the happiest person I saw during the day was not a bright-eyed school child, but the cigarette-and-coffee woman finding a familiar face in the crowd.