Tag Archives: friendship

Snapshots of a Friendship

I met him six years ago in Boston. He was my officemate. We had to feel each other out a little at first, the environment being what it was. But we became fast friends: hitting happy hours, watching sports, bitching about everyone else there. I met his on-again, off-again girlfriend (she sucked), some of his friends in the area (they didn’t), even his parents at his graduation ceremony. It was a good year.

He left for a year stint in Japan before I knew I would end up there after he left. He struggled, the same way I would my first year. For him, it was mostly the long-distance thing with his girlfriend (the one who sucked). We Skyped once or twice, exchanged occasional emails. A mutual friend and I visited him out there together. We drank sake, ate conveyer belt sushi, celebrated my 30th. It was a good week.

The next time I saw him was either DC or Japan; I’ve forgotten the timeline. DC was when I stayed with him and met his new girlfriend (she didn’t suck). We chatted, drank, played with their dog. It was a good couple of days. Japan was longer. This time around, I lived out there, and he had come out to do some fieldwork. We hung out, drank too much, took a trip up to Sendai. It was a good few weeks.

We met up in Atlanta last year. His girlfriend was there; the dog didn’t make the trip. We were there ostensibly for an academic conference, but managed to sneak in a basketball game. We hung out the next night too, catching up and drinking a fair amount – while bitching about acquaintances we had been talking to just hours earlier. It was a good day and a half.

I saw the two of them again this past weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was their wedding.

A year and change, a handful of Skypes and emails. It doesn’t seem like much, not in the grand scheme of things. Snapshots. But it seems representative of most my relationships these days. A past period of close proximity, sporadic reunions, but otherwise, infrequent, almost nonexistent communication – and a fundamental lack of involvement in and intimate knowledge of each other’s daily lives.*

*There is one exception, but she is truly the exception that proves the rule. I write about the rule here.

It makes me wonder about the nature of friendships, certainly the nature of my friendships. There appears a thin line between space denoting comfort and ease with the relationship and space reflecting the harsher reality that the relationship is simply no longer what it was. Proximity – or lack thereof – might appear an easy excuse, but it seems hardly determining, potentially (easily?) overcome by effort.

Perhaps though this is the natural evolution of a relationship, as friends move out in different directions, stages of life, geographic locations. It is quite difficult sometimes to disentangle the relationship from the shared life experience that created its foundation, harder still to predict whether the former can survive in the absence of the latter, especially as people themselves change.

I think about the people I consider among my closest friends and I can recognize that it has been ages since I have had a real conversation with the majority of them. We exchange sporadic texts and emails, either for the most significant of life occasions (an impending child) or the opposite extreme (fantasy sports or political commentary), with little in between, regarding for instance aspects of our daily lives.

And yet I feel even with only snapshots of their current realities I still know their essence, due either to the length of the relationship, or the previous close proximity shared, or both of these. I wonder though if that too is a mirage, akin to what I wrote of the image conceived and acted upon by family members who profess to know the “real” you. I wonder then to what degree I am lying to myself.

I hope the distance is not because I take friends for granted. I hope there exists an implicit mutual understanding that relationships persevere even as they evolve and in some cases devolve. But maybe this is all semantics. The real question has to do with the kind of friend I am and want to be and am capable of being with each individual. It is about fit and connection and love, again even as I change and they do also.

Relationships are fraught. I know this is universal, having attended the aforementioned wedding in which the best man mentioned he was surprised to have been selected as such, in which mutual friends I expected were not even offered invitations, in which there appeared nobody from the locale in which the bride and groom were currently situated. Connection is not easy – to make, to maintain.

Then again, maybe this is precisely why I went out there. Even if I am no longer involved on a daily basis, even if I do feel somewhat detached from their present realities, I still could be there for a moment of genuine significance, for an updated snapshot. And as a result, the idea that I still know his essence a little bit, that we still had some of that first year in Boston in us, doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Every relationship is different. Thus, every relationship has to be examined on its own merits. Not all of each is in my control, of course, and perhaps too often, I cede responsibility – whether purposely or not. I’d like to think that I give enough, hopefully more than that, to those who ask, those who want. But I am picky too. Maybe that’s why the snapshots mean something to me still.

(Photo by Mayaoren, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Of Crushes and Loves

(1983-2015)

She was pretty and smart. And she had a unique name that I still remember. We were in first grade. But my friend declared his own crush for her first. So I kept quiet. It didn’t matter much in the end. I moved and changed schools after less than a year. Funny enough, I did run into her a couple of years later at the public library. She stood there when I came out of the bathroom, openly staring at me. I recognized her back; I must have. Neither of us said anything though. It’s hard to explain why third graders act the way they do. I suppose the idea of fate didn’t register to either of us then. Anyway, after a beat, I offered her the bathroom key. She didn’t take it, didn’t react. So I went on my way. That’s the last time I saw her.

She was a pretty freckled girl. She and her best friend were the queen bees of my new elementary school. I remember vividly how big a deal it was when the two of them got in a fight in the girls’ bathroom once. The details of the fight – physical or emotional – were a complete unknown. I developed a crush, of course. But she was always hanging around the school jock. I had no idea if they ever actually dated (this was third grade, after all), but they seemed a natural match. Her friend actually liked me for about a week. That was her thing; she had a new object of her affection every week. Nothing came of it. I moved after fifth grade, and that was that.

She was the smartest girl in sixth grade. I might have been the smartest boy. (It was a small school.) We were friends. Acquaintances, really. I remember writing in her yearbook, “don’t let your brain fry in the summer heat.” It seemed clever at the time. She playfully threatened to chase me around the playground when we came back in the fall. A budding love, perhaps. But my family ended up moving again without notice. We actually ended up at the same college though. I saw her once on campus. She was older, obviously, but still pretty, still unmistakably her. But we had never kept in touch. So I let her be. I only saw her just the once.

She was the prettiest girl in middle school. I wasn’t particularly cute or cool or anything then (or now, for that matter). We sat together in a class, at a four person table, for an entire semester. But we didn’t talk much. Still, the topic of crushes did come up once. I became the subject of scrutiny. I didn’t say anything. She started probing, listing other girls in the class, being obtuse, the way attractive people can be about their own attractiveness. I didn’t admit anything to her though, or to anyone else. Years later, I learned that she would actually become the first love of one of my best friends in high school, totally unbeknownst to me. Years later, I learned she broke his heart.

She was the smartest girl in ninth grade. Seemed it, anyway. Freckled, curly-haired. Different. The creepy social studies teacher would make comments about her and the smartest boy in the class (definitely not me) like they were peas in a pod. It only made me like her more. Regardless, I made my way to my next crush. Four years later, I did ask her to sign my high school yearbook. My big move. She wrote something so generic another friend mocked her in the message he wrote to me. The last time I saw her was after senior night. I was driving home, she was outside waiting for her ride, and our eyes met for a moment. It seemed like closure, if for something that never was.

She was the kindest girl in high school. Seemed it, anyway. I didn’t much interact with her, certainly not outside class, but I projected all of my hopes and dreams on her. I don’t know how I got to that point. Before we graduated, I wrote her an absurd email about my not wanting to have any regrets, about wondering if there might be something there. I asked for a reply in the form of her presence, for a meeting at the Observatory. She didn’t show, of course. I still cringe about putting all of that on her, 15 years later. There’s a part of me that wants to apologize, even now. But it’s a selfish desire.

She had the bubbliest personality. Smart and pretty too. I was her teaching assistant. She never gave any signs, any hints. But I plowed ahead and asked her out via email after the quarter. She never responded. Horrifyingly, she ended up in another of my classes a year after that. I felt awful. I wrote to apologize for putting her in that position. She wrote back. Somehow, we became friends. She shared a lot about her life with me, her issues. To this day, we’re in touch – emails, texts, the occasional movie if I’m in town. My crush is still there, I suppose. But it’s just so irrelevant now. I’m more concerned about her, protective of her. Maybe this is how I’ve tried to repent.

She was older, seemingly far wiser and more experienced. A friend in graduate school. We weren’t too close, partly because she was married. Then she wasn’t married anymore. By then, we lived on opposite sides of the country, so lengthy phone conversations sufficed. She came to visit eventually, her birthday weekend. My first love. I had ridiculous fantasies about us, about our future. It was different for her. A fling. It took me too long to figure that out. I visited two years later, in town for a conference. She was cold, distant. She made sure we didn’t spend time alone. We had contentious conversations about other things. Everything fell apart that weekend.

She had a great sense of humor and a nice chatty way about her, if fueled by a fair bit of narcissism. She rebuffed me on our second date, but we continued to hang out, as friends. It was unhealthy. She came to lean on me during a tough time. I accepted co-dependence in place of love. She would speak about a friend in another country who was supposedly perfect for me – ostensibly because it wasn’t her. It was patronizing. After she moved away, I realized how shitty the relationship made me feel about myself. It was nothing she said or did in particular, just the whole of it. Our conversations became less frequent. The last was, and will be, in September.

She was the sweetest girl, intellectually curious and gorgeous too. We had a cute date, great conversation, some silliness that made for a perfect story. A second date followed, then a third, and more. In that brief time, she seemed like a true love, not just a fling, and not unrequited. But she had family things going on, and fell ill from the stress. She kept me at arm’s length. Our correspondence slowed when I went for a visit home, about six weeks in. When I returned, she had decided she needed to take care of herself. I wanted to share that burden, but she was resolute. She was to leave the country in eight months. She never reached out again. In the end, I suppose it was unrequited love too, if in its own way.

(Photo by Corwinhee, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Facebook, Revisited

Three years later, I am back on Facebook.

It’s strange, bittersweet even, to see how much people I once considered friends have changed. Children appear that I knew only as infants. Children exist when they previously didn’t altogether. There are altered physical appearances, jobs, locations: some entirely out of left field. My return exacerbates the feeling I had during my time in Japan of a life in pause. More than that, it underlines the gulf in place – emerging before Japan – between my life and theirs, a mutual creation. Some former acquaintances leave my friend request hanging even as I see they remain active users; perhaps they were offended by my drifting, or are simply indifferent to my renewed presence. I’m a bit saddened by that, though it only reinforces a truth I already know.

For those who do accept my friend request, or send one over my way, I have made no additional effort to catch up. I don’t know that I will ever develop that urge. To be fair, it’s a two-way street. In the meantime, I am already being confronted again with annoying traits of particular individuals: narcissism, self-righteousness, and so forth. There is so much attention-whoring and self-congratulatory drivel and, in some instances, melodramatic self-pity.* The superficial and transient nature of it all smacks me in the face too. Maybe I’m just annoyed that I’m not fully engaged, or that I’m not winning the popularity contest. But even when I do want to share content, I’m all too cognizant about the justified criticism of echo chambers.

*Even more than can be found on this blog! 😉

Of course it has not all been unequivocally bad. On a practical level, I have been able to reach out for a quick question or chat or photoshare here and there, at times with people I probably wouldn’t have been sought out otherwise. More fundamentally, I get a glimpse – even if a superficial one – into the lives of people I was close to and still care about, at some level. It is perhaps a healthy deterrent to my natural inclination to sever completely, irrevocably. Meanwhile, for those who I remain close to and deeply care about, I get to witness another side of their personality, peer into their friendships and their past and present lives. Naturally, if selfishly, I get to show a bit more of myself to them in the process too.

Thus far though, I have largely been a passive consumer of content, forgoing the role of active producer I used to play. I reserve my activity to the sporadic photograph, status update, and ‘likes.’ There is a chance that a small handful of relatives, close friends, even lost acquaintances would appreciate it if I were to expand my presence on social media. But I don’t know that I can be that person now.* I don’t know that I have ever been that person, online or off. Indeed, one of my oldest friends told me once that I was selfish because I didn’t share more of myself with people in general. I remain convinced he overestimates both my appeal to others and – more relevant – my tolerance of others.

*For instance, sharing my Instagram seems supremely self-centered. Meanwhile, this blog is a bit too near and dear to share actively and indiscriminately with people I know, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.

Yet, there is no doubt I have different feelings about Facebook now than I did in the waning months of my previous stint. During that time, I felt the need to cleanse myself of the casual acquaintances that seemed confined to a shared – and aggressively inclusive – graduate school experience. The website seemed a reminder of all that I could not shed, of the facade that all of us were supposed to maintain. But I don’t necessarily see it as that anymore. Perhaps the time away has allowed me to feel like I have indeed moved on, or at least, like I have proven to myself of that. I can look back at those people and those relationships with a degree of objectivity, and not feel resentful that I am tethered to them without a real choice.

I am deluding myself a bit. There is admittedly a comfort to the social network, especially during a time when I feel especially vulnerable. It is nice to know that there are ‘friends’ out there – no matter how dated and loose the term may be – who will like a photo, laugh at a status update, click on a link. Who will, stripping things bare, acknowledge my existence. I don’t know what that says about me. I justify it by saying I want to reduce the burden on my best friend, on other close friends, so that I don’t become too needy, so that I don’t warp the relationships that actually matter to me. There is some truth to that. But maybe it has to do with narcissism too, with my desire to secure a little more validation. I do not deny that possibility.

For now though, in part because of the ambivalence, I feel a bit in limbo, as though I have returned to Facebook without quite committing to it all the way. Maybe this is my new status quo, the means through which I reconcile my need for the social network with my distaste for many of its aspects. Or maybe, it’s a matter of time before I decide to move on once again.

(Photo by momo – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kudumomo/5476683654, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37919316)

Left Unsaid

There are some things left unsaid. They have to be.

There’s a quote that high school seniors love to use in their yearbooks, that high school graduates have taken to using in their inspirational memes. “Dance like nobody’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one’s listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” The idea is nice, to be sure. Romantic, empowering, life-affirming. But it’s also not viable. It’s not viable for the same reason why “live everyday like it’s your last” is an abstract (and absurd) philosophy rather than a realistic blueprint for daily living. After all, we don’t exist in a vacuum. “We’re living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilized way.”* We have societal duties, responsibilities.

*Wise words from a wise man.

I’ve discovered this past month that social mores are never more manifestly apparent than during a period of transition (say, a move to the other side of the world). Perhaps it’s the inherent contradiction. What seems a perfect opportunity to cut to the chase given the blank slate instead becomes a stark reminder of the game we have to play in existing as part of this world. I want desperately to ask my new colleagues outright about the assholes in the department. To ask my panel what they really thought of my interview months ago. But as honest and straightforward as I fashion myself, there are consequences to consider, and thus, boundaries to mind. Maybe I get my answers in due time. Maybe I never do.

I admit that I felt a tremendous urge to impart memorable words to those I left behind in Japan. I suppose it’s the theatrical side of me, growing up in Los Angeles. Regardless, I certainly considered offering unsolicited advice to those who have been a part of my life over the past two to three years and beyond. Perhaps in my more drunken moments, I even started to do so. I itched to tell my supervisor about the work environment he had fostered, I racked through my brain for the right words with which to relate counsel to colleagues, I began a letter – in my mind – for the research fellows who were to join the institute I was leaving.

But despite the temptation, I did not end up doing any of these things, for any number of reasons. It’s undeniably arrogant for starters. For me to impose my perspective on someone else’s experience, to presume that the would-be recipient was not already aware of their own traits, to overlook the possibility that they too might have thoughts about me, my persona, my very essence that they were holding back out of common courtesy. But more than arrogance, that I did not feel comfortable enough to share my thoughts up until that point with these individuals reveals much about the nature of our relationship as it had existed.

I had a conversation before I left with a friend about my mixed feelings toward giving advice to a mutual acquaintance. And he asked, “Why not? You’re leaving anyway.” It’s not that simple. Leaving a place, leaving people behind – it’s not an excuse to forgo social obligation and responsibility, to essentially live like there is no tomorrow. My departure might have been a necessary condition for an airing of laundry (clean and dirty, positive and negative), but it is not in itself not a sufficient one. Yes, in a few rare cases, I did have heart-to-hearts. But the foundation for those conversations, for those memorable words, had been meticulously laid out – on both sides – over the course of those relationships.

Still, I would be remiss to suggest that there were no words left unsaid even in those instances. The game is prevalent even in the most intimate of relationships. Because ultimately in life, there are some things that don’t need to be said, or shouldn’t be said, or haven’t gestated enough to be said properly. Restraint in these instances is not a matter of cowardice, but the reverse, and linked to having a measure of basic decency as a human being. There are boundaries to mind, a result of timing, or circumstance, or consequence. There always will be.

So some things are left unsaid. They have to be. At least for now, and perhaps even for ever. But that’s the burden of living with a tomorrow. That’s the burden of living when someone is watching, listening, responding.

Loneliness and Japan

The natives are kind. That’s not the issue. Sure, it helps that I’ve been willing to initiate. And that they see me as a curiosity of sorts, someone who – as a non-Japanese Asian-American – looks like them but isn’t one of them. Whatever the rationale, I’ve been able to strike up countless conversations with strangers at bars, at restaurants, at parties. I’ve gone out with them for lunch, accompanied them sightseeing in the city, and in one instance even attended their chorus group performance. But they remain distant. We don’t hang out. We’ll exchange sporadic emails, or there might be a meet once every couple of months. We’re acquaintances, relatively poor ones at that. Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, the communication barriers impose a fundamental limit to our relationship anyway. My greatest value to them is as an English speaker.

The expats are around. That’s not the problem. In fact, I’ve put myself out there as much as I have at any point in my life. Through Meetup, I’ve drank with craft beer enthusiasts, chatted with people at a comedy show, even gone out for karaoke with strangers. I’ve hung out with plenty of people via OkCupid as well, for exploration, coffee, dates, whatever. But these too are fleeting. See, they’re 22-year-old English teachers, or they’re Westerners with a particular zest for Japanese culture, or they’ve been here forever and will be here forever. We spend our time almost exclusively talking about Japan: its nuances, its eccentricities, its flaws. After all, when it comes down to it, the fact that we’re both here is the only thing we have in common. My greatest value to them is as someone to commiserate with.

I’m generally a solitary person. But this past year has been a challenge even for me. I imagine some of my emotions are common among individuals living in any foreign land. It’s hard to prepare for the frustration that stems from the inability to communicate and understand and interact in any sort of natural fashion. It’s hard to anticipate the helplessness that accompanies feeling detached from the world in which you inhabit. Yet Japan is exceptionally difficult even by those measures. The size of Tokyo’s population exacerbates your lack of import. The uniqueness of its culture accentuates your foreignness. The worker ant nature of its society supports and legitimizes your loneliness. The result is an aggressive, hostile, ever-present isolation.

I’ve made one friend in Tokyo. The numbers have always been small; as I said, I’m a solitary person. I made four friends in two years living in Boston: two a year, neatly assigned, an outcome of the instability that characterizes academic life. It was tough to part ways then. But the impending departure of my friend here next month has hit me in a uniquely visceral way. It’s elicited intense – and unprecedented – feelings of fear and despair and panic and utter devastation: I’m an emo mess. Certainly, a lot of this has to do with the friendship itself, with my feelings for the individual. But it is not lost on me that our bond meant that much more precisely BECAUSE it was made here, in a place that has been so difficult, so seemingly bereft of human connection.

I’m here for two more years. On the good days, I will be able to see my time in Japan as an adventure that most people will never be fortunate enough to experience. On the good days, I will see the next job as a means with which I can propel my career, and perhaps finally find some semblance of professional fulfillment. On the good days, I will invest in studying the language, in learning more about the culture and the society. I will attend more social events, seek to expand my circles, become more active as a neighbor and resident. On the good days, I will take control of my time here, and try hard to reduce that detachment I feel from my surroundings. And I’ll persevere, because there is no alternative.

But right now, I can’t see those good days, and don’t know when or if they’ll come. Instead, I see myself in a city surrounded by well-meaning natives that I cannot communicate with, and friendly-enough expats that I cannot relate to. I’m in a place where everyone assumes I’m Japanese until I open my mouth (…and sometimes not even then), where I can’t even look as isolated as I feel. I’ve reached a stage in life where the obstacles to connecting with people – really fucking connecting – are immeasurable even without the simple reality that the pool of candidates here is smaller, thinner, and more dispersed. And now, worst of all, I’m about to lose my closest friend in the loneliest city in the world. I can’t remember when I’ve felt lower.