During my first visit to Manila, a young Filipino woman was walking past the bench where I was sitting, waiting for my girlfriend to finish her work. She broke from the conversation she was having with her two friends, approached and asked "Why you look so alone?" I let her know that I was okay, so she joined her friends again and the three of them walked away, going back to speaking in Tagalog and giggling.
I often ask myself why the incident affected me. My focus at the time was how my visit to Manila and, more importantly, the relationship with my new girlfriend were going. From an objective point of view, the young woman wasn't unattractive. She appeared to be in her mid to late twenties, just over five feet tall, dressed in a loose fitting tee shirt, denim shorts and a pair of sandals. Her natural black hair had been coloured with ginger streaks here and there. I've probably got some of the details wrong, but that is how I remember her. More to the point, why do I remember her?
My impressions of Manila, up to that point, were not favourable. The security guard at the airport had suggested that I use another man's phone to see why my girlfriend was not waiting for me, a privilege which cost me most of my wallet's contents. Taxi drivers had also tried to trick me into paying more for a journey than I should. I regretted not learning more about the food, because I made too many visits to the local branches of US fast food chains.
Sitting on that bench within the grounds of a mall in Makati, I had far too much time to think about the situation. I was in a strange country, far from my family, friends and all that I know. I'd like to think that the young woman had no ulterior motive because, for a brief moment, her expression showed genuine concern for another human being.
As she walked away with her friends, I thought about her question. Why did I look so alone? Maybe she was asking why I looked so lonely? If she really looked at me and felt genuine concern for how I was feeling, then it was correct to ask why I looked so alone. The irony is that, on a later visit, some children took to referring to me, in Tagalog, as a ghost. I know that I was thought to be a ghost because of my pale complexion but, on that first visit, I spent a lot of time feeling like a ghost. Going into a shop led to some interaction with the shop assistants, though this was clearly in the hope that I would make a purchase.
It's difficult to explain how the sight of my girlfriend (now my fiancée, I might add) made me feel. As I saw her emerge from the approaching crowd, I suddenly felt less alone, and then not alone at all. I was happy that the bar girls would no longer be walking past me several times, each trying to gauge my level of interest in their presence. I was also glad that I could stop looking so alone, spending my evening in the company of a truly beautiful woman instead.
It's unusual for people to see loneliness in us. A good friend of mine is known to say that we only see the edited highlights of the lives of others. I should mention that my friend is a personal counsellor, and his website is well worth a visit. I would add that a lot of people feel more lonely than we know. When a member of my fiancée's family enquired about people in a country as relatively rich as the UK seeking the support of a counsellor, she asked if the issues were mainly linked to loneliness.
It's funny that we have so many ways of communicating with each other, and yet so many of us feel isolated. Maybe technology is not the answer. Maybe we buy into the whole communication technology thing in the mistaken belief that, some day, it will make us feel less isolated, less alone. We seem to be spending less time in the company of other people, genuinely feeling a connection with them, and too much time staring at screens. No wonder we feel lonely.