For many of us – particularly those of us fortunate enough to not lose family members – one of the deeper losses we have suffered during the pandemic has been being cut off from people who we were not close to. I long for the sociable buzz of academic conferences, for the chats in coffee breaks with people I see once in a blue moon. It has been sobering to realise how much we gain from the proximity of people whom we do not love but from whose presence we still draw comfort and stimulation.
In Hello, Stranger Will Buckingham, a peripatetic academic and author, offers an elegant and often moving exploration of what it means to connect with strangers. His starting point is one of grief. The death of his own wife, Elee, from cancer, haunts his book. While he needed the comfort of friends in the aftermath, he recounts: “I was surprised by the extent to which I also needed strangers – people who knew nothing of Elee, who knew nothing of the particularities of my grief.”
Even before his wife’s death, much of Buckingham’s life had been spent among strangers. Growing up, his father’s vicarage was something of an open house to congregants and assorted waifs and strays. As an adult he has travelled widely and spent extended periods working, exploring and learning in Indonesia, China, Myanmar and elsewhere. Indeed, even after his wife’s diagnosis he still went off to teach in Chengdu, returning only when it became clear the illness had entered its terminal phase.
Hello, Stranger is rooted in a long tradition of thinking about what it means to live in a world in which we are surrounded by strangers, yet also need the pleasures and comforts of home. Buckingham’s anthropological experiences as a sojourner inform this book, bolstered by his familiarity with ancient histories, literatures and mythologies. One constant presence in the book is Homer’s Odyssey, and Odysseus’s travails in returning home – and his often fraught dependence on strangers for hospitality along the way – are, in a sense, all our travails.
While Buckingham does not ignore traditions of xenophobia and suspicion, he also emphasises the balancing tradition of “philoxenia”; a Greek New Testament word that connotes curiosity towards, and the desire to connect with, those who are not like us.
Philoxenia is certainly worth celebrating. Humans have a rich history of hosting, welcoming and reaching out to those who are not close kin. Buckingham has personally experienced the giddy pleasures of having food pressed into his hands and being invited to stay in homes everywhere from Bulgaria to Pakistan. He has also reciprocated. In the early years of his marriage, bored with the quietness of their life in Birmingham, Buckingham and his wife opened up their flat to the world via the Couchsurfing app.
“And as they crossed the threshold of our home, our guests came bearing strange and wonderful gifts… Bottles of bitter Unicum, the potent medicinal alcoholic drink from Hungary. Hunks of homemade Parmesan cheese from a family farm in Italy. Household ornaments. Once, we hosted a Syrian pancake chef. He set up his hotplate in our kitchen and prepared a feast of crêpes and galettes.”
If all this seems a bit too gregarious (it certainly does to me), that doesn’t mean that Hello, Stranger advocates maximum sociability, all the time. Indeed, Buckingham confesses that during a stay in an Indonesian village where life was lived communally and publicly, he sometimes yearned for the peace and solitude of a hotel. He also struggled to adapt to the overwhelming hospitality he encountered in Pakistan, and to learn how to be a “good guest”.
Hospitality to strangers is not simply altruism, it can also be a matter or obligation, respect and dignity. Buckingham recalls an Iranian refugee, Rahim, who he taught in a writing class in Leicester. Rahim invited him to his home for tea, treating him to a spread that must have eaten into his meagre resources. While Buckingham initially felt uncomfortable at accepting this largesse, he learned that “the ability to act as host may have helped him salvage a sense of his own humanity and agency in the face of the inhumane world”.
Yet there is a limit. Even in the most elaborate hospitality traditions, as in Arabia and Mongolia, the guest has duties too, not just to accept food and shelter in an appropriate manner, but also to leave at the right time and in the right way. Openness always involves risk and trust. It’s no coincidence that hospitality codes are often tied into honour codes that condemn those who transgress them to the harshest of fates. The northern Albanian Kanun code may be more than 3,000 years old, butit still exerts its power. Honour requires hosts to give up their beds and best food to those who visit. Yet when that honour is insulted it leads to blood feuds that can be pursued across generations.
Hello, Stranger celebrates the urban as well as the rural. Even in the vast conurbation of Chengdu, Buckingham eventually finds a kind of “home” within its convivially crowded streets. At the same time, the frantic pace of urban transformation isolates those left behind. Buckingham loved his time working in Yangon and the lively Burmese street culture that surrounded him. Yet his neighbour, with whom he was supposed to share a yard, not only pretended he didn’t exist, she was likely responsible for leaving a bowl of apin – a kind of black magic sludge – on his doorstep. As he concedes, she may have been right to mistrust him, since he was part of the wave of hipsterisation that was taking over the neighbourhood, and from which she was excluded.
Living with strangers isn’t easy, then. For all the joys of togetherness that are vividly described in this book, Hello, Stranger isn’t simply a paean of praise to having people round for dinner.
Still, for all the cautionary notes that Buckingham sounds, he doesn’t really engage with the difficulties of what it means to connect online. And while there are web-based traditions of welcoming (couchsurfing for one, although here the online component is only the starting point) I have seen too many people tear themselves apart on social media not to feel that the internet brings out our xenophobia more than it does our philoxenia.
I also got the sense that Buckingham didn’t quite know what to do about the pandemic. There are only occasional references to it in the text, together with a short author’s note at the end. Here he recounts the uncertainties of his life in a Bulgaria emerging from lockdown, before defiantly asserting that, “pandemics come and go … if we can only hold on to to this creature need we have for each other then – when the storm has passed – we will be ready to throw open the doors, to reconnect, to embrace and to go on building a shared world worth living in.”
That’s certainly something to hold on to, but as the author himself acknowledges, sickness is also one of the inevitable results of the human desire to live among strangers. And I was struck by how one of the highlights of the book – his description of the joys of hotpot restaurants in Chengdu – is also a description of conditions that are ideal for the spread of pandemics. Sichuanese hotpot is a shared, messy and noisy delight, and emerged within a culture that values crowded intimacy. Viruses but thrive in such conditions of hyper-sociability. Covid spread from Wuhan, another Chinese megacity, and found its most hospitable hosts in communities where life is lived in sociable crowds.
So yes, pandemics come and pandemics go and still humans remain addicted to congregating together. Today though, we are also assailed as never before with detailed knowledge of the costs of this way of living. If there is an ending to this pandemic, the trauma of it will stay with us long into the future. So while Hello, Stranger is a beautiful meditation on the pleasures and pains of a world to which many of us yearn to return, it may also be an elegy for a world that is lost to us for some time to come.