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  • Nick Pang

Wilhelm Without a Moustache

Home bound

Our society is moving towards greater automation and digitisation. Advances in artificial intelligence enable us to tap on things like ride-hailing apps and chat bots for many of our daily routines. As we replace people with robots, we might make great gains in efficiency and still end up losing so much more - the human connection.

My wife and I left a gathering late a few nights ago. Our ride-hailing app paired us with a driver named Wilhelm. I wasn’t exactly expecting a German gentleman sporting a handlebar moustache but I was still pleasantly surprised when a middle-aged Singaporean welcomed us into his car. It was his choice of music that caught my attention and revealed something unique about the person behind the wheel: he was tuned in to a radio station that played melodies that sounded like the jazz standards from the 1920s and 30s - but I couldn’t catch the lyrics.

I complimented him on his taste and asked about who was playing on the radio. Wilhelm confided that he neither knew who was singing nor what the songs were about: they were in Mandarin. As a Eurasian, he was never schooled in the language but he learned to appreciate this genre of music from a Chinese nanny who babysat him when he was a child and played songs like this in the background.

No one else in his circle of family/friends shares his love for this kind of music, and that’s why he prefers to drive at night when this dedicated programme playing vintage Mandarin jazz airs. Of course, he could have gone online to stream or download these songs but he didn’t know where to begin and was comfortable sticking to his nightly routine. As we were talking, I realised my wife was already searching for songs and singers from that era on her mobile phone. She pipes in and shares how she recalls smatterings from her own childhood when her grandma played them as she handled the chores. Just as we turn into our carpark, she forwards a list of Youtube links to Wilhelm (scroll to the end to listen in).

The car stops. Wilhelm samples the links and turns around with a wide smile, “Thank you so much, I’ve been looking for songs like these my whole life. This is really wonderful! But I feel like I benefited more from this ride than you did!” My wife chimed, “That’s no trouble at all. We’re happy to share what we know with you! And we benefited too: you brought us home safely.” We alight with goodbyes and warm hearts.

I think what made this ride special was that we three were willing to reveal deeply personal parts of ourselves: recounting significant people and memories from our pasts and how they impacted us today. My innocuous question about Wilhelm’s music selection gave him an opportunity to share about his childhood, which led to my wife sharing about her beloved grandmother.

Admittedly, most of my rides don’t turn out this way simply because it’s so easy to regard the ride as a service and forget that the driver is not a robot. And although ride-hailing apps are predicated on turning the driver into an efficient transportation asset guided by GPS, we the passengers can help to bring back some curiosity, spontaneity, and empathy into those journeys we take with them. With some practice and patience, travelling from one place to another can become opportunities for meaningful human connection.

What are some meaningful conversations you've had while traveling?

What made those conversations memorable?

What did you learn about yourself from those conversations?

Photo by Thaddaeus Lim