Dave and I hadn’t really been close in the first year. We lived in the same neighbourhood, and hung around the same people, and did occasionally similar activities–but we were sort of tangential people. We’d see each other at parties and be pleasant, but both of us were really too busy to put out the effort. “We should really have dinner!” we’d both say, and then be satisfied with the extent of our interaction and never feel the need to actually go through with eating. The Venn Diagrams of our lives had significant enough overlap that it was basically like being friends anyways, just without any sort of real commitment. He was not bad, and neither was I, but both of us already had full phonebooks and weren’t really desperate for more entries.
And then the first year ended, and most of the people we knew left.
One day, we were sitting in a bar, half-empty of the usual faces we had come to associate with the very physical space. It was too vacant by far, and it felt as though there would be an echo. We were like war veterans, meeting years later, talking of all the people we’d lost.
We decided to have dinner that week, and when we both discovered that our schedules were equally, desperately open, actually went through with it. It was pleasant, as we knew would happen, because neither of us sucked: we were just lazy before. But we both had a lot of openings available in terms of our social circles. At a certain point, one of us said, “So I think we’re friends now.”
When you live so far from home and all the people you knew, you don’t really have the luxury to be choosy. At home, I had the opportunity to be selective, and elitist, and aloof. I could whittle through candidates and become friends with people based on my capricious, hipsterly whims. People could do the same to me. We could meet in sunglasses and leather gloves, and cruelly and indelicately assess one another’s beliefs, eating habits, and music preferences. Their appearances, and political associations, and aspirations. The running shoes we each wore. The approximate height of one another’s hair. There were millions of people around, and if something wasn’t to your liking, something even infinitesimal and stupid, you could just find someone else. There are other friendship fish in the sea, and you don’t have to stick with the first that comes on the line.
Moving abroad makes you a little more pragmatic.
There are still many people, certainly, but suddenly you have far more holes in your schedule, far more worrisome voids in your calendar. All of your family and your school buddies and coworkers and drinking partners and crochet companions are in another country, and the gaps feel absolutely astonishing, like giant gaping holes burned and cauterized through parts of your torso. You need people. You need friends. You need people to spend time with, and eat with, and shop with, and see in your down time. And you can’t really afford to be choosy.
I stalled just a little too long on making winter vacation plans the first year, and one day I realized that everyone I knew was already booked up. They had plane tickets, and hostels, and bug spray and sunscreen and blank memory cards and pre-tans and full itineraries ready to go. I had a bank account, and some vague inklings to go to South Asia. I was screwed. My plans were directionless, and I became certain I would be trapped, alone and cold, in the wasteland of vacation-time Korea.
Suddenly, a blip on the internet: an acquaintance, Gwen, wanted to go to Thailand, and no one else seemed to want to go at the same time. Was anyone interested? Without even thinking, I had replied, and within weeks we had our tickets.
After some time, we both came to a realization: we had agreed to spend about 24 hours a day with one another for a week in another country, without having really hung out all that much. “Maybe we should get to know each other?” And with that fumbling, inelegant jump, we were friends.
Back home, the initial stages of friendship are coy, and romantic. They are like a first few dates. You find out one another’s interests. You share dinners, and drinks, and discover just how much of an alcoholic you can be around one another. There are sudden moments of discovery of shared interests, and hints of the deeper friendship that will form based entirely on your mutual, shared love for Breaking Bad. You come across what you both know, and what you share, and the relationship builds and flourishes in glorious, companionable fluidity.
Things can go smoothly, and naturally. There is no pressure. Neither of you are going anywhere.
Abroad, you have no such luxury. You have days of time to fill, and nobody to fill it with, and gaining friendships is a matter of cold, brutal calculation at times, and sloppy acceptance at others. Where they’re from, the school they went to, what they like to eat and do and believe: most of it is ancillary. Are they breathing? Do they have a face? Can they communicate with you, whether in English, Korean, sign, or interpretive dance? Do they have working lungs and a heartbeat (and even then)? They’ll do! Besties forever.
The greatest friends I have in Korea have often come from these flavourless, no-nonsense and no-romance beginnings. The three people I spend the majority of my time with, those three who I plan on exploring large portions of South Asia with post-Korea, I would not even have befriended if I had had other New Year’s plans in late 2010. A mutual friend asked me what I was doing, and being the blowhard I am, bluffed about my many options. I eventually tagged along, hung out with the acquaintances I had met months before, and suddenly I had friends for life.
Because there’s a little too much pressure, sometimes. On time, and on distance, and on reality to really go through the regular process of befriending others. You’re rent from your support network, and you need to build up a new one without delay, lest you fester and become an isolate. And the sheer plethora of people from so many different places and walks of life can overwhelm, so you just sort of latch on to whatever will come by.
Which isn’t always a bad thing. Suddenly your social circle includes the kinds of people you would have daintily looked down upon at home, or just simply never thought to talk to. Different types of person, different countries of person, become the people you spend your every day with. And those who suck at romance anyway suddenly don’t have to worry. You don’t need to be charming, or witty, or smart or even pleasant. You just sort of need to be there.
“Hey. Want to be friends?” The answer is yes. Friends for life. Or at least for Korea.