It may seem an unlikely place to want to spend time when traveling, but hanging around convenience stores like 7-Eleven is one of the best ways to meet people and learn about a culture.
The real story of travel writing and itinerant journalism is often incredibly sub-glamorous. Everybody who does it says this. How could it be any other way when over 80% of the job is spent in a room alone, typing, doing research, writing emails, planning travels, setting up projects, etc . . ? I suppose it’s the remaining 20% that gives this line of work its intrigue — or maybe it’s because this is the only portion we dare write about?
A good amount of a writer’s time is spent finding people to talk to. Sometimes you go into the clouds of Heaven after hermits or down rivers into the depths of jungles after Kurtz-es, but most of the time you’re meeting up in Starbucks and drinking lattes. However it’s acquired, it’s the information that comes from animate, moving mouths that counts, and how to best collect this information is a large part of the ever-evolving art of the profession.
Meeting people doesn’t just mean going to where the people are. There are a lot of people in the streets Mid-Town Manhattan, but no one has yet figured out how to get them to stop moving long enough for a chat. So finding those little spheres in a place where people are not too busy to talk is key. You have to find the hangouts. They’re often easy to locate: they are the places with a bunch of people who apparently have nothing better to do than gawk at you in unison.
In the age of globalism, this often means convenience stores. When in Asia, the best for this by far is 7-Eleven.
It may sound strange to say that I spend portions of my days of traveling sitting around in 7-Elevens. It may seem like a pretty lame thing to do when you have an entire country before you to check out, and I have to say that the habit began rather accidentally. I would find myself stopping into these places for a snack and ending up finding people to answer my questions. I eventually saw a pattern, and figured I may as well exploit it. I like drinking cans of beer at noon anyway.
Convenience stores are often mini-social centers in Asia. They often plant themselves in the hearts of communities or, conversely but to a similar effect, out in random, quasi-remote areas where there is seriously nothing else. Workers tend to go to these convenience stores when on break from work, university students congeal in them between classes, high schoolers mill about after class gets out, and travelers stop in for a quick snack and a break from the road. They are the pit stops of a continent that is falling all over itself in the global socio-political-economic race.
While these places sell the snacks, drinks, and misc little things that people like to pick up through the day, their true essence is in their seating areas. Unlike convenience stores in the USA — which are designed to get customers in and then get them out as fast as possible — convenience stores in Asia are meant to be places where people stay for a little while, eat, drink, and recoup. They often have free WIFI and power jacks to recharge phones. The seats in these convenience stores are often small, one-piece cafeteria style table/ chairs combos that are bolted to the floor or bars running along a wall, usually before a large window. These areas are not usually too large, and the people tend to pack in tight — making them easier to talk to.
What makes this even a more optimal place for conversation is that people are often not really doing anything very physically or mentally strenuous when taking a break in a convenience stores. Going to the 7-Eleven is a transitional part of their day, someplace they go in between doing one thing and another, coming from one place and going to another. People come in, buy some dehydrated noodles and a sugary tea drink, sit, eat, drink, look at their phones, relax for 10 minutes, and then return to life. This is the perfect time to meet someone.
So I sit there in the convenience store, typing up some notes or something while I wait for someone to come in and sit nearby who I can barrage with questions. When someone does sit down I scan them quickly. Do they look like they want to talk? Did they acknowledge me or are they pretending I’m not there? Would I guess that we may have a common language? If I answer yes to any of these questions I throw out a hook. I either A) look for something about them that sticks out, like a fancy piece of clothing, a tell-tale uniform that indicates their profession, a band t-shirt or an athletic team logo on a hat, or B) I ask a stupid tourist question like “What is that guy over there doing?” etc . . . I gauge their reaction, and if all goes well I keep talking. You just don’t open conversations with, “So, it’s a nice day, do you believe in God?” You start mundane, then get more in-depth from there.
Though what I perhaps like most about hanging out in convenience stores rather than another type of hangout is the absolute randomness of the people who go there. Everybody goes to convenience stores. A massive swath of whatever society you’re in is going to brush shoulders with you when in these places — from the lower upper class to students to the working class to the dirt poor, they’re all in the convenience store. You have no idea who is going to come in and take that seat next to you, it’s like pulling the crank on a slot machine. Every once in a while it all lines up and you learn a little more about the place you’re traveling in.