Quang Ngai, in Central Vietnam, was not always an easy place to live. It was not just the stress of the war that kept me on edge, but sometimes the weather depressed me as well. During the cold, rainy season the sun seemed to disappear for weeks on end. Everything became wet from the misty rain that fell all day long and the extremely high humidity.
It was during one of those rainy times that I drove my small Honda motorcycle through the countryside, delivering scholarships to poor students. On this day there was no misty rain. Instead it fell in sheets across the rice fields, flooding the roads in many places and finding every possible hole in my rain poncho, soaking me and my colleague until we were shivering with cold.
Finally, our scholarship deliveries for the day ended and we headed back to Quang Ngai town, looking forward to getting out of the rain and drying off. In those days, most of the streets in Quang Ngai had not yet been paved and the constant military traffic created deep ruts filled with soft mud and water. Maneuvering carefully through this quagmire, we were constantly splashed with mud and water as military jeeps and trucks sped past. I was in a very bad mood.
My colleague needed to stop at a pharmacy to purchase some medicine so I let him off and waiting on the Honda. The rain had stopped by now but still no sun. Several military jeeps drove by throwing sloppy mud out of the ruts over me and everyone else on the road. I sat staring ahead with many angry thoughts in my mind. "I'll tackle the next person who splashes me and throw them face-down in the mud!" That perhaps was one of my kinder thoughts as I stared angrily ahead at anyone who caught my eye.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a young man cautiously steering his motorbike through the muddy ruts of the street. Riding behind him was an elderly woman, probably his grandmother. He was driving slowly and with great concentration, making sure he did not topple over and throw his grandmother into the muddy street.
As he manipulated his two-wheeled conveyance through an especially deep rut, he happened to look up, for just a second, and saw me. I then recognized him as Em Hoang, a student I had met only once more than a week earlier. In the few seconds that he saw me, he took one hand off the handlebars, gave me a friendly wave and shouted, "Hi Max!" Then he returned to his concentration on driving and passed on by.
Our interaction of just those few seconds changed my day. When my colleague finished purchasing his medicine and joined me on our Honda, I drove the rest of the way home whistling a happy song.
It does not take much for us to help someone else feel the warmth of a smile or a friendly greeting. We could do it more often because we do not have to use a lot of energy or creativity. We simply need to see someone else, especially a stranger, as a good friend who deserves our friendly attention, even if only for a few seconds.