Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mask of Friendship

I just talked to my friend SA-F online. I rarely get the chance to talk to her because she goes to a different university than I do and she rarely signs online to chat. She's been having difficulty with getting into nursing school. Her grades aren't high enough as a pre-nursing student and she just found out that recently most nursing schools require so many hours of community service in a health care setting. Although the community service isn't a problem at all, as she was going to do it anyway, she still wished she had known ahead of time.

Being the worried person I am, I helped her think of options. Plan alternative paths to nursing, if you will. She's clearly passionate about becoming a nurse and helping people, it's just that classes like orgo daunt her (and really, when will a nurse need orgo anyway?). I helped her look at ways to change her major, so she could improve her GPA as well as buying her more time to stand out from a community service point-of-view. She apologized for ranting about her problems, but I don't really mind. I mean, really, as a future physician, isn't that what patients do? And isn't it a doctor's job to listen to all that and then help determine the best course of action? In any case, she thanked me for listening and helping her come up with ideas.

I don't know, I'm pretty much always willing to listen to a real issue if a friend brings it to me. I kind of pushed her to tell me more so I knew enough to be of some (albeit, potentially minor) help. Maybe that's part of my Mask of Friendship, part of that package when one becomes friends with me. Or perhaps it's just some underlying need to help, I don't know. In any case, my Mask of Friendship is an ironically lonely one sometimes. See, the reason is that I distinguish between multiple levels of friendship. I have many friends at the "acquaintance friends" level, where it's great if we hang out and talk, but neither of us will feel pained if we don't see each other for months or even years at a time. I have several friends at the "good friends" level, where I will sometimes actively seek out to hang out and such. I have a few at the "close friends" level, a group of friends who I'll see at least once a week and talk to many more times than that. If you were to consoladate everyone in the "close friends" level, you would create my "best friends" level. However, I don't think I have anyone I could call a "best friend."

Part of it might be my fault, I've spent all my life keeping a part of me distant from everyone that perhaps I've never let anyone close enough to develop that "best friends" relationship. It could also be my inane idiosyncrisies. I have a very eclectic tastes in all my interests that it's hard to find a single person who can talk about anything at length in all those many subjects (but perhaps I'm being too picky). It's even possible that I do have a best friend without even knowing it.

And so, let me recount my relationship with two friends who I consider the closest to the "best friends" status. Warning: long post below.
1. JR-M
I've been friends with JR-M since I was about 7- or 8-years-old. He was my next door neighbor for about 8 years and he was a year younger than me, and thus a grade below me. We would often play after school in our made-up fantasy/sci-fi/adventure games. We had a rather vast imagination encompassing magic, mutant powers, Power Rangers, sci-fi technology, etc. Our interaction was mostly thus for all of our childhood. We've had our deep discussion about life and school and the future and such things, but the lasting memory of our friendship was one of outdoor fun.

I was also friends with his older brother, TR-M, who was in my grade. I believe I became friends with JR-M first simply because I met him first before I met either of his older brothers. Often it would be JR-M, TR-M, me, and my two younger brothers playing one great game for hours outdoors. To an adult I'm sure it looked like a strange game of tag with an attempt at acrobatics and sometimes with racing back and forth. Truly, it was a wonderful thing that there were no fences or barriers separating our backyards.

I also believe our relationship might've gone further and deeper had my parents not been as Asian-strict. Often my brothers and I were limited in how long we could spend outside playing, and were always yelled at and called inside to do homework and extra work. For a long time I envied the perceived freedom of my next door neighbor friend. If he had been allowed in our house and had I been inside his house more, who knows. Yeah, it was strange, come to think of it, as our friendship only really existed outside in the backyard and around the neighborhood. The thing about his house was that at the time both his parents were heavy smokers and I could not stand to be inside his house, or near where I could smell smoke, for a very long time. I would hold my breath (and still do) when I'm near smokers when they're smoking (and if they reek of smoke). One can only hold one's breath for so long.

When I moved away we drifted apart quickly. We seldom called each other and neither of us had email back then (and really, what use would it have been with dial-up connection?). He visited me a few times and I visited him a few times and that was that. The next time we saw anything of each other was in high school where we both attended. His schedule was - unsurprisingly - different from mine and so we didn't interact all that much. He had his group of friends and I had mine. He also had a single steady girlfriend for most of high school. This separation grew somewhat after high school as we attended different universities in the state and pursued different majors.

There was really only one thing binding our friendship, and that was (and probably is) an unfinished book. See, in middle school, TR-M and I were bored in class. So we decided to draw little stick figure aliens attacking each other on the brown paper bag covers of our books. We eventually developed different physiologies for our aliens, different technologies, different names, etc. When we went home (this was before I moved) we would tell JR-M about it. He soon joined in with a race of his own. We decided it would be an interesting idea if we were to write a book, with each of our aliens comprising its own chapter through a rotation.

Over the years apart, we have each thought more and more about our created aliens. We developed culture, architecture, language, customs, more "realistic" sci-fi technologies, etc. Meanwhile JR-M took over the writing of the book itself and now it's become his project. None of us cared as he had writing style most suited to writing a book anyway. In a way, our dorky sci-fi aliens tied us back to a childhood together. I have missed his company over the years and I've grown a little reserved around him of late . . .

But when we talk about "the book," and eventually about life, future plans, etc, it's as if we were never apart. True we are updating on each other's lives, but it feels as if nothing had fundamentally changed all these years. There are few people who I've felt such little change in friendship over the years, especially with the distances that separate us - both physically and communication-wise.

2. JW-M
I met JW-M randomly. We were roommates freshman year. I suppose one might say our meeting was thus fated. We had been looking forward to meeting each other ever since we were give the other's contact information. He was a poli-sci major who was also taking Chinese. And I was a biology major and Chinese. Also, he had taken Calculus 3 and that was one of the courses I was worried about first semester freshman year (it turned out he was useless for help in Calc 3).

I don't know what kind of first impressions either of had when we physically met. Here we were, two overweight dorky freshmen, not knowing what to do with ourselves on campus (at least I didn't have the inconvenience of lusting after him). We got along surprisingly well. True, we had our little annoyances - I think I had more qualities that annoyed him than he had that annoyed me - but we never had any real problems. We even had our morning schedules syncronized somewhat.

Let me explain. We both had our first classes either togethere or at the same time all of freshman year. We set our alarm clocks about 5 minutes apart, both to NPR (he got me into NPR . . . also it was the only decent radio station we got in our dorm room). Mine would go off, I would hit snooze. 5 minutes later his would go off, and then mine would go off again shortly afterwards. We then got out of bed at about the same time, went to the bathroom, brushed our teeth, got dressed, and went to class. All of this taking about 15 minutes. We had mastered getting up later and close to when we had to be in class. We were always on time too.

At night we would go to sleep very late. It was unusual for either of us to get more than 6.5 hours of sleep a night. You see, while we both would've dearly loved to go to sleep before 2am, that simply was not possible most nights. And if we stayed awake until 2:30am, the drunken people from other floors would migrate to our hall and stand very near our door, and sing very loudly and off-key. For about half an hour to an hour. It was like they were trying to serenade us to death or something. So we had to wait until they left. It also didn't help that one of our neighbors across the hall had a tendency to wander around with his guitar singing badly - we think he thought it attracted the girls (which surprisingly, it did attract a few, they must've been hard of hearing).

One night we went to bed around 2:15am or so, and the drunken people hadn't arrived. We were cleared to sleep - if we could sleep before they came, then we were both out until our alarms the next morning. Well, just as we turned off the lights and our heads hit our pillows, they arrived. Oh how we cursed. Instead we decided to have a chat because we tended to be very busy throughout most of the day, and we often studied in the room together in silence. We found out that we both loved Arby's (a fast food chain here in the Midwest, and probably elsewhere in the US, for those who don't know). That was an instant bonding moment that we would forever remember. No seriously, if you asked us now the one bonding moment we had together, that would be it.

After freshman year we were no longer roommates but we remained very good friends. While we were in the dorms sophomore year, we would knock on each other's door to eat lunch and dinner down in the cafeteria. That year we also started going to the campus gym on and off together. We might've gone more if we didn't have to trek about 20 minutes across campus in the snow and biting wind during the winter months. Nevertheless, our friendship grew into a strange one that our personalities fed off each other only in each other's presence.

For example, he would begin to act really silly around me. For the last two years, whenever I went to his apartment to study, he would spontaneously break out in made-up song. His songs usually included my name and phrases in English and Chinese that made no sense when placed together. Throughout the course of my undergrad, I've been given my own theme song no less than 2-3 times. One of them was a very cheery one about me being the Lord of the Underworld. In any case, I would often stop him with my Asian glare (the one where the eyes narrow to slits very rapidly). I believe he did these silly things to elicit a reaction out of me. It was all in fun though.

We had our deep conversations and we hung out quite a bit. For the last year or so we went to the gym quite frequently (I should hope so as we lived literally right next door for the last year). He was a very intellectual fellow who I could talk about anything non-biology. Too bad biology and medicine consisted a large part of my discussions with people sometimes. I had often asked him if he found me or my presence annoying. I asked because we would sometimes complain about other mutual friends who we could only stand in small doses, and if we were around them for too long, it would make us want to suicide ourselves or kill them. Okay, I exaggerate, but I hope you get the idea. His response was that I knew when I become too annoying and I stop whereas others keep going. So my presence never made him want to vomit and at least I could hold intelligent conversations at length. I'll take that as a compliment.

He's been a good friend these last 4 years. He was actually one of I believe 3 people I came out to. My relationships with everyone I've come out to hasn't changed at all, and in fact, it's as if I never came out. But he's been supportive when I needed him these last 4 years and I've been there to listen to his problems too. Thankfully he always had the answers to his problems so I never had to help him with anything. I think I'm a kind of wall that he can rant to sometimes. In reflection, meeting him has been a good thing. I've changed a bit thanks to him. I've loosened up a little, I've been able to hold more intelligent conversation, and I've become more tactful in what I say. He's truly a friend amongst friends, and everyone who's friends with him feels that way. Too bad it causes him to be stretched thin amongst his friends sometimes (many of them mutual friends).

You know, there were things I wanted to say to him, things to thank him for. But in such instances I'm always at a loss for words. Perhaps that last handshake said it all. Some of his last words to me in person before he left for China to study abroad this year were, "Well, you're officially more knowledgeable [in medicine] than any of us, Dr. Aek." I must say, that elicited a sincere smile.
I apologize that this post has been so long. I just kept typing, haha. I don't know, perhaps I've had best friends all along, though neither of us have used that terminology about the relationship we share.


FlyingRabbit said...

Perhaps this is the longest article I've ever read. However, I find it easy to understand what you talk about. Oh, let me introduce myself: My name is 陶旭(pinyin:Taoxu), and my English name is John. I'm a university student in Beijing,China. I'm glad to hear that you learn Chinese. I can teach you some of it if you want to and I can improve English by the way. I think you're a good guy to get along with after reading this artile.

James said...

You're that way cause you're a sweety, that's why.:)

I think it's interesting how different people gauge friendships based on different things. Some really put an importance on time spent together, some on things shared, some on physical investments (no, not sex), etc. I think for me it matters a lot what I share with someone...if it's a lot, then I consider it a strong friendship, no matter how much the other person might might bother me otherwise.

Anyways, it sounds to me like you have a couple best friends. I think maybe you really do not know it! Obviously there are several people that just feel right at home in your presence.

James said...

*puts out cigarette*