An Online Turned Offline Encounter

A few days back, I was able to have the great pleasure of meeting Cydney Alexis over at Material Lives in person. The way that we first met on the internet was quite fascinating.

Cydney works over at the Admissions department in the University of Madison-Wisconsin, and she happened to have a photo intern working for her who heard about my street photography from a photography professor. Cydney’s intern then went to my site and liked the template that I was using, and suggested to Cydney that they use a similar style for their blog. Cydney then checked out my photography, and enjoyed my images, and emailed me inquiring about how much I charged for my prints. I still have the email stored in my Gmail account:

Thu, Jul 30, 2009

Eric–

I am sure I cannot afford one of your photographs, but I thought I’d inquire anyway–how much do you tend to sell them for? They are just gorgeous.

Best,

Cydney

Upon hearing such kind work about my photography, I was quite touched and offered to send her a few prints (free of charge). After sending her the images, she was extremely gracious and after that we hit it off. We found out that both of us had interests in audiobooks, photography, as well as blogging. She recommended me a bunch of books, one of them being Kafka on the Shore, written by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Over the year, we were able to keep in touch via our blogs as well as through email.

This summer my girlfriend Cindy went to the University of Madison-Wisconsin to take a Vietnamese-intensive program called SEASSI for the summer. I promised her that I would visit, and before I left Cydney came to mind. I wasn’t 100% whether Cydney was in Madison or some other city, so I shot her a message and got in contact with her. After confirming that she indeed was in Madison, we arranged to meet in person (for the first time) sometime during the week.

After exchanging phone numbers, we arranged to have dinner together, along with Cindy and another friend. We met up and ended up eating at Dotty’s Dumplings, one of the favorite local restaurants. Over some amazing fried cheese curds, chili-cheese fries, and hamburgers, we talked for the first time in person and had a wonderful time, grabbing some amazing Gelato afterwards.

I recall when I told my other friends that I was going to meet a friend that I only knew online, they gave me curious looks. I have to admit, there have been times that I have met people online in the “real world” and was quite shocked that their offline persona was the exact opposite of their online persona. Not only that, but some people even had deceiving online profile pictures which looked nothing like themselves in real life.

The thought of two people meeting perchance via the internet, nearly half a country apart and meeting in person and eating dinner together is quite an unusual encounter. Such things would have never been possible even a few decades ago. However Cydney’s and my online turned offline encounter is a true testament on how the internet is closing the geographical gap in the world and bringing people closer together.

Also in the case of Cydney and I, meeting in person for the first time was quite natural and not awkward at all. I had never seen a clear photo of Cydney, and wasn’t 100% sure what she exactly looked like. Upon meeting her in person, I found out that she dressed quite trendy, and even rocked a sweet tattoo on her shoulder. Also while talking in person, it was interesting that we had so much to talk about, when referring to one another’s lives via our blogs or based on the comments we would leave one another. I felt that I grew to know her quite well on the internet, and nothing about her life truly caught me off guard when meeting her offline.

However at the same time, I still feel that it is important to make the point that online interaction could never replace offline interaction. Even though I did know a great deal about Cydney through the internet, the way in which we were able to interact in real life brought an entirely new type of energy. Through the laughs, tasty food, and good conversation we were able to connect to an extent which could never be possibly recreated online. However with the permeation of online virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, The Sims Online, as well as Second Life, how close can online interaction replicate offline interaction?

Anyways, I still have a few days left in Wisconsin and I should be able to meet Cydney at least once more. And sorry Cydney– I haven’t been able to upload our photos yet, hopefully they will be up soon!

edit: here are the photos

Me and Cydney
Me and Cydney
Deep Fried Cheese Curds--mmmmmm
Deep Fried Cheese Curds--mmmmmm
Chili Cheese Fries
Chili Cheese Fries
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The Joy of Being a Regular

So everyday I have pretty much the same schedule. Wake up at 6:30am, get in my morning workout, eat breakfast, catch up with emails, work on my photos and any other miscellaneous tasks and leave to catch the bus to go tutoring. After my first tutoring session, I take another bus and have around 2 hours of a break. I always go to Paris Baguette and order an Americano and chill there and do some writing and then go to this little Korean restaurant across the street and get a tonkatsu.

Doing this everyday has caused the people at Paris Baguette and that restaurant to know my face. It is really nice because I know all the people who work at both places and I always feel at home being here, rather than just being a mere customer.

For example when I kept on coming to Paris Baguette at around the same time, ordering an Americano and chilling here and using my laptop, the people noticed me. One of the cashiers asked me if I worked around here, and I told her how I was from America and I tutored English nearby. They remember what I want and when I go near the front they ask me, “Americano, right?” and I nod and go to the same spot I go to everyday near the entrance.

When it comes to the restaurant, I always order either a beef tonkatsu, a fish tonkatsu, or soondubu (spicy tofu soup). I don’t eat a lot of white rice in my diet so I would always eat only a tiny bit of the rice. Once they started to recognize me, one of the ladies who worked there asked me why I didn’t eat much rice. When I told them that I didn’t want to get fat from the rice they laughed and told one another. The next time I came I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the ladies recognized me and heard her yell to the chef to just give me a little bit of rice because I didn’t eat that much.

I then realized at that point that I was a “regular.”

The idea of being a “regular” and having all the employees know you by a first-name basis is something very romanticized in popular media on tv and the movies. Who doesn’t want to go to their favorite café and tell the cashier “give me the usual.” The cashier than proceeds to say, “An espresso with extra cream and hold the sugar, right?” I think I have finally achieved that for the first time in my life, and it is a very humbling feeling. Usually when we think about our experiences at stores, restaurants, or even cafes we can think about snotty people working there who doesn’t give a damn about us. But having people know your preferences and stuff like that makes the experience so much more personal.

I wonder what life was like when everyone just lived in little towns where everybody knew another. You would go to the same grocer for your fruits and vegetables and chat a little and then head to the deli to get some meat. While you are there, you might tell the butcher your day and how things are with your family and stuff. And when going to buy new clothes, the store manager would know what style that you like and would proceed to fit you with clothes that mirror your character.

Nowadays the world has become a pretty impersonal place. One of the largest complaints that customers have is when it comes to customer-support. In attempting to cut costs, companies hire the least skilled laborers at minimum wage who provide mediocre service. Take Walmart for example. Sure it may have some of the lowest prices, but at what price? All of their scandals aside, they have a workforce that are much less trained and knowledgeable than smaller mom-and-pop stores. I used to believe that low prices were the most important thing, but nowadays I much prefer service over price.

Companies should realize this as well. Customers are more likely to purchase more things if they feel comfortable and welcomed by employees who know what they are talking about. I would gladly spend more money for better service, and leave a store feeling satisfied knowing that I got my money’s worth.

But the sad reality is that mom-and-pops stores are going bankrupt all over America, being overtaken by huge retail stores such as Walmart. Regardless of how great their service, they simply can’t complete with lower prices. And with the shopping experience going online, we no longer need to even interact with salesmen or people when purchasing what we want.

But human interaction is what makes life worth living. Can you imagine one day where you don’t even need to leave your house? It’s probably going to be here before you know it. Everything will go online. Everyone will start to buy everything they need online and even go to work online from home. There will no longer be any “need” to even take a step away from your computer. Kind of imagine that world pictured in Walle where humanity just lives on huge levitating chairs and does everything they need from there. As ridiculous as it may sound, it is where humanity is heading towards.

So now what can you do about it, the individual? Even though the world is becoming into a much more impersonal world, it doesn’t mean that you have to grow more impersonal as well. Sure you may feel socially awkward when striking up a conversation with a stranger or even a clerk, but nothing is holding you back. There is no Big Brother looking over your shoulder watching your every action.

We have to remind ourselves that the person at the cashier is a person, just like me and you. They have their own lives, families to worry about, bills to pay, and a life to live. The next time you are getting service from anywhere, don’t feel afraid to strike up a conversation or even say hi to the other person. Who knows, that person may be having a crappy day and they may be shocked to see a random customer inquiring about how their day is going.

So become a “regular” with everyone you interact with. Even if you see the same people at work everyday, take a minute or two out of your day and ask them how they are doing. Bypass the typical “I’m doing fine” response and tell them how you really feel. If you feel like crap tell them “I feel exhausted from sleeping at 3AM last night, but this coffee is keeping me awake” or if you feel great don’t simply say that you feel good. Tell them, “I feel FANTASTIC.” People will marvel at hearing honesty and something genuine.

Now excuse me while I go and order my Americano.