On Friendship, part I


Before I went to Tufts I told myself, arrogantly and naively “Oh, I’ve been studying abroad for quite a while; people in US will be very open and sociable so I will have no problem finding friends” That wasn’t entirely false. After orientation I did knew a lot of people, but once the semester started, I realized that it was only easy to know people, to say “Hi”. Having good friends like those who care about me, who can sit down and listen to me is way harder. Many of my friends shared with me about that same sentiment too: why does the friendship here seem so different from the ones we have back in high school or even before that? (Interestingly, many of them who shared this sentiment are international students studying in US).

Let me pause here and propose a simple equation that guarantees a long “duhhhhhhhh”

Quality of friendship = Time spent together x Depth of each interaction.

For the first half of last Fall semester, I attended classes, did my work, exercised, explored different stuff on campus – everything got into the regular rhythm. But something was not happening frequently enough: a good, long conversation with a friend there. I bumped at familiar faces all the times, said “How are you doing” too often, but that was all. That was when I realized something obvious: I couldn’t just sit and wait for friendship to take place. I had to be more active in spending time with my friends. My skin is getting thicker and thicker as I keep telling people “Hey, can I have your number? Let’s talk some times.” Going to college means suddenly being thrown into a huge new world; everyone feels the need to make use of this great community, so most people happily give me their numbers.

But time is only one factor. In terms of depth, I recall an observation that a friend once told me: Majority of all the conversations one can overhear in a coffee shop or family dining table are about events or (other) people. Fewer may dig a bit deeper to talk about ideas (thankfully Tufts is such a vibrant intellectual community with curious people), and fewer still reach the level of feeling, the “why” . It feels as awkward and weird as suddenly turning silent in the midst of a conversation. It is very difficult, but also immensely rewarding – after all, what in life is deeply rewarding but easily attained?

What do we do when we experience something nice? We want more, and if it is really nice we will even do things to get more. We all use our past experiences to guide us in our actions. You want to convince me to buy a CD by One Direction? You have to let me experience their mellow voices first.

When two of us share experiences and form connections, it’s not just me who thinks “This is so good. I want more!” You do too. We naturally share that enthusiasm with others; we want to have this rewarding experiences with more people. What baffles me about the conventional romantic relationship is the big role that jealousy plays in there compared to a nurturing friendship.

A nurturing friendship is never a zero-sum competition. It’s not like we have only one cake, so if I eat more you have to eat less. It’s more like I have a strawberry cake; you try a slice, love it, then you say “Hey I also bring a chocolate cake for you” and I am mesmerized by its taste too. Then we look at each other and say “Hey, it’s so nice! Let’s bake more. This time we can also try a different flavour”

(Just to extend the analogy, sometimes things don’t go well. Our cake gets burned; you yell “Why on earth does someone put raw durian in a cake?” and I defend myself “Why did you never stop me?” “Because I thought you knew what you were doing!”. We are angry at each other, so we stop baking and sharing cakes together, forever. Or, perhaps one day I will knock your door with our failed masterpiece intact on my hand and say “Thank you for trusting me that I knew what I was doing. I thought I knew, but I actually didn’t”. You laugh and say “Normally I will be very dubious of that endeavour too (I nod, “It’s obviously riddiculous”), but you were just so eager with the idea that I myself forgot about its impracticality and just wanted to support you”. From then on, we keep baking and sharing good cakes together – occasionally with some spectacular failures too)

Ok, I got a bit carried away with the story, but the point is here: any good relationship is a collaborative endeavour: the only way for me to do well is that you have to do well too and vice versa. The distinction between selfishness and care for others is a false dichotomy. They are interdependent like yin-yang: without one, there is no the other. I think the eating cake analogy nicely captures both the reciprocal and generative nature of a good relationship (as well as the very different flavors). It also leads me to think of a test that I will use again when it comes to decision about my future spouse or my friend or even my workplace: if both of us can honestly say “You make me want to become a better person”, then it is a relationship worth treasuring. True relationship serves others.

I’m going to spend the next 3 weeks for a project with some good old friends and many new too. If our project fails to achieve its objectives, I will still be happy to say that we have undergone a challenge together. That alone is priceless. It’s a great joy to work with friends on something that we all care about.

And that surely guarantees more writing too 😀



2 thoughts on “On Friendship, part I

  1. Pingback: Sharing secrets. | The Talky Armchair

  2. Pingback: “The ideal family”? | The Talky Armchair

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