A few years ago, when my daughter was in preschool and my son was a few months old, I was making my usual morning drive to drop my little girl to school with her baby brother tucked away in his car seat. It was one of those mornings when we overslept, so it was a mad scramble trying to get her dressed, pack her lunch and then take off with the baby and her. I did make it to the school on time, but my son dirtied his diaper on the way.
On reaching the school, I realized that due to the rush in the morning, I had forgotten to carry his diaper bag in the minivan and therefore I did not have wipes or a diaper. I borrowed some wet napkins from my daughter’s preschool and cleaned up the baby. His shorts were messy too and I did not have an extra pair of shorts either, so my son was only in his t-shirt!
I’ll be home soon, I thought, but then my eyes went to the gas meter. I realized the low gas light had been on for a while and I would not be able to get home without filling up.
I should have remembered to tell my husband to do this for me the evening before, I thought, feeling a little flustered as I am not good with machines. When I first came to America, even the vending machine confused me. Where do you put the money in and how to make the selection come out? ATM machines bewildered me, too. Since then, I have learned to use both those machines which in retrospect hasn’t helped me much, as I eat way too much candy and buy soda all the time. I have also learned that when you take out cash from the ATM, you spend it very quickly! Gas tanks, though, haven’t been as easy to master.
I managed to park the van correctly, so the gas tank was well aligned with the nozzle. Thank God for small mercies, I thought, as being a new driver at that time, sometimes I had trouble parking properly in a gas station.
However, as soon as I inserted my credit card, I realized I had put it in the wrong way. I don’t know what I did, but the credit card got stuck in there. I thought, “Oh no! What have I done? Why do I get so nervous? If only I had kept my calm, I would have swiped the credit card correctly! Now what? I cannot go inside and ask the cashier to help me, as the baby is only in his t-shirt and I cannot leave him in the van! Oh, how I admire and envy people who have it together, who are organized and who are on top of their game. I wish I could be like them. Why do I always land in a mess?”
Surprisingly, there were no other people and the whole place was empty. “Where is everybody?” I thought to myself. Then I saw a couple of bikers park their motorbikes close to the convenience store at the gas station. They were big and brawny with rippling muscles, adorned with tattoos which were well displayed by their sleeveless t-shirts. They were wearing bandannas and had long beards and looked intimidating. I felt a little nervous and overwhelmed. They both were looking at me and talking to each other.
Just the night before, I had seen bits and pieces of the movie Mad Max and images from the movie came flashing back to me. I had seen the part where Mel Gibson’s wife is followed by a rival biker gang. Her van breaks down and she starts running on foot with her baby, but there is no escape. The evil gang follows them, taunts them and then runs them down with their motorcycles and they are killed; Mel Gibson arrives too late to intervene.
Coming back to the present, I saw one of the bikers striding down purposefully towards me with a blank look on his face. The other biker went inside the convenience store. I got a little scared. I knew logically that movies are different from real life and he cannot hurt me in broad daylight, but still my heartbeat increased, and I was shaking a little bit. “I should have eaten breakfast,” I thought, “I feel so nauseated.”
He came right up to me and asked, “Is there a problem?”
“Err. Err, problem? Yes, yes. My credit card got stuck,” I mumbled.
Without saying a word, he managed to take the credit card out, swiped it for me, lifted the nozzle, asked me if I needed to fill the whole tank. And when I said yes, he filled my minivan with gas and shut the valve for me.
I was so relieved, and so grateful. I have no idea why I was so petrified earlier. “What a nice, helpful man,” I thought, breathing a big sigh of relief. I wanted to give him a hug and thank him, but did not have the nerve to do so.
“Take care now,” he said and he turned and walked back towards the convenience store. “Thank you so much!” I shouted out to his back, and he turned and nodded his head.
Later, I came to know that the movie Mad Max is set in a future dystopian world and does not mirror the current reality, so I had no reason to be worried in the first place. Being new to the country and watching some scenes unfold in a movie had prejudiced my thinking.
Unfortunately, I realized, we form impressions and judgments about people even before we have talked to them. However, assumptions are not reality. We have to question the existing stereotypes about groups of people and their associated behaviors.
The smart thing to do is to explore, examine and evaluate each person you meet as an exclusive and unique individual who is independent from his or her group. I know that is a hard thing to do but it is definitely worth a try. Don’t judge a book by its cover!