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Surfing the Inside Edge
How a full blown introvert can blossom in the hustle and bustle of big cities
Sitting squarely in the introversion column, I often find myself seeking moments when I can hit the eject button, escape from crowds, wander into the backstreets of my mind, process, spin off the windings, decompress and work things down to that core of inner peace and calm that always seems to lead me in the right direction when I’m ready to set off again. So why the heck do I like to travel?
Those who do not fully understand introversion might shake their heads in disbelief if I were to list out some of my favorite places on Earth. The predictable ones are out in the sticks and I won’t be divulging them for fear that the Instagram crowd will come swarming in. Others spots, like the place shown above, may be easy to find on a map but would require too much work to get to which tends to weed out major portions of the population. However, some of my favorite haunts are in major world cities; probably surprising to some of you who think you have me pegged. What may seem incongruous to those of you with your eyebrows raised is that a solid introvert like me can like being plunked down in the middle of a major world city. What?!? Introverts like staying on edges! Silly me, people like me don’t like big crowds!
Sitting prominently up at the top of the world city charts for me would be Tokyo. It’d be much harder to rank the runner-ups. We would need one of those high speed photo finish cameras to see exactly which city was next, but among the leading contenders would be Manhattan, Hanoi, San Francisco, Kyoto, Vancouver, Paris, Portland, and Barcelona. Yeah, they all seem to hit the finish line ribbon about the same time for different reasons. But does a leading tip of a nose beat the big toe of the right foot?
As for Tokyo, my favorite, it’s ranked as the largest city on the planet. Described as 38 major cities in one, it has one of the highest population densities on the planet, and has more things to see and do to fill a thousand lifetimes. It sprawls endlessly in every direction. So for someone like me, who likes to head out miles into the wilderness to get to that serene spot where almost no one else is ever seen, where I try to sit and be still long enough to to let seep into my soul as much of the calm energy that all the peaks, cliffs, lakes, rivers, trees, meadows, and wildflowers send out through gentle breezy waves of thin smog-free fresh air, how is it that a magic moment is being squeezed into a carbon dioxide rich confining crush of humanity as I navigate the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world? Why doesn’t my head spontaneously implode from the mother of all migraines?! Thankfully, I don’t get headaches.
One simple answer: I love people. “No! That’s not true. We know you, Jay!” say the people who really don’t know me at the core. “You cherish your alone time, head out on solitary walks to get away from it all, and your worst nightmare is to host one big giant blow out party for all your family, friends and neighbors!” Yes, indeed, all those things are true. However, ironically, it’s for the same reason that the most treasured moments of my life are when I’m with my peeps.
If someone threw me to the mat right now and asked me what the top 100 moments of my life have been, 90 or more of them would be with either family or dear friends. I love spending time with the people I love. I am sure that those of you who know me well have seen my light bulbs shine super brightly when we hit the right stride in conversation. More passionate become my words. No matter how short or long the conversation is, and whether it be with someone I know really well or someone I’ve just met, if I feel like we’ve struck a chord, then Bam!!! I love it intensely. Those are the greatest moments of joy for me. It’s also exhausting. Afterwards, I need time to chill and recharge all that energy I’ve just expended and let what we just talked about soak into my soul.
So back to the city. What is a major metropolis filled with? People. Tons of other things too, but none so important. If one were to sit back and think about the mass of humanity all smooshed together into one place, it would freak out just about any introvert. So how is a guy like me who wants to sit down, chat, and make a new friend going to do just that in cities filled with millions and millions of people? The answer lies in finding an “inside edge.”
Take any big crowd, and you’ll find introverts on the edges. When I walk into a packed conference room, where do I immediately aim for? An outside edge. I want some open space on at least one side of me. Who sits in the middle? Usually extroverts who want to be completely enveloped by a sea of humanity and have things coming at them from all directions at all times. So just how can I survive being smack dab in the middle of the concourse at the Shinjuku train station, reportedly the busiest train station in the world, at peak rush hour? Because, by and large, heads are down, no eye contact is being made, no one is talking, and I am clearly an outsider by all appearances and dispositions. To many, once a foreigner, always a foreigner. For me, being a complete outsider when everyone else is on the inside is super comfortable. I know I’m different. They know it too. It’s obvious for everyone to see. You have more options when you’re weird.
So, if you follow, I like to find spots that are on the “outside” right in the thick of the middle. This “inside edge” is like that ribbon of crunchy hard crust that somehow penetrates the outer surface of a loaf of sourdough bread and dives deeply into its doughy interior. These ribbons may be hard to see or find on quick inspection when pulled from the oven, but slice up a loaf, take a closer look, and you may find one. These inside edges are the perfect place to meet people like me. I thrive there. It’s where I can open up more channels and better process all that I’m seeing. Introverts, give it a shot. When you’ve eddied out onto one of those inside edges, scan the crowd. There just may be someone else like you who makes eye contact, cracks a smile through a sea of flat-lined lips, and gives you a nod of acknowledgement that you’ve found a great spot. You may have just found yourself another outsider looking to surf an inside edge.
The news feed on a trip to Seattle gifted me with an article that I’ll never forget. It focused on all the various quiet places in a city where one may find pockets of calm: museums, parks, libraries, cafes, common rooms, cathedrals, temples, back city streets, architectural wonders, etc. Hitting like a hurricane, it was a lot of information coming in full force at once as it made brain-fall. I realized afterwards in the calm of the eye that these are the very places that I often find myself migrating towards when traveling in a big city. These are all inside edges, and they’re great places to spin off residual energies. It’s in these types of places where I can let the thoughts wish-wash around in my head so I can let down. Folklore says that introverts hear things only once but those thoughts then whirl around in their heads on spin cycle at least seven times. We need those spin cycles to expunge any of these excess thoughts that don’t absorb into the gray matter. After all, things get quite tattered after more than seven ricochets!
Besides being useful to drain out all the spare thoughts from one’s head, other magic also happens at these quiet inside edges. It’s where you may meet like-minded folks. On the eerily quiet Tokyo subway rides where no one is speaking, all cell phones are set to quiet mode, and you could hear a pin drop from three train cars down, the guy next to you may sense that you too appreciate that inner crunchy ribbon of crust. After all, you both chose to sit in the outermost corner at the end of the last train car. Next thing you know, you may know all about his girlfriend and his life back at home, and he may know all about you and your family and what you find so culturally fascinating about Japan and why it’s now your favorite place on Earth. I will never forget that conversation and its long-lasting impressions. We were both riding the same inside edge for a brief moment in time, and the high I got from it is still with me today, and hopefully likewise for him too.
If you plop yourself down on an inside edge in the busiest of places, you might just notice that tall girl sticking out of the crowd glance your way with a big smile as you lean against the wall at the busiest metro station in Hong Kong, the guy who walks up to you and asks you what card game you’re playing over in the corner of that small bar in Seoul, the knowing smile from the lady next to you at the back of the train heading into Shibuya when all other eyes are cast downward, the only other backpacker on the city bus heading out of Cologne who takes the empty seat across from you when there were so many other good choices, the couple that drops their bags down next to you as the sole foreigner on an otherwise empty train platform in Hokkaido, or the only other person you see out and about who’s crazy enough to go visit a buddhist temple in the dark before daybreak in a backwater neighborhood of Kyoto while others are still sleeping. Those are the opportunities. Some of these are your peeps. And sometimes it takes a massive city with millions upon millions of people milling about to find those precious few who also seek out the inside edges. You just may meet a wonderful person and make a lifelong friend.