This is part six of my project, the Ingredients of Fear, where I peel back the onion and reveal everything that’s been beating me down and holding me back inside. Click here to learn more about The Ingredients of Fear.
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I was basically raised by television, and it seemed like every show I watched growing up was about the importance of friendship: Golden Girls, Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, Friends, Seinfeld, the list goes on.
And in every single one of these shows, we were taught that friendship was all that’s needed in our lives. We don’t need fancy jobs or fluffy retirement accounts, because our friends will always be there for us. We should also go out of our ways to help our friends, because at the end friendship is the only thing we need in this world. That and maybe a bottle of Coca-Cola.
But the problem with learning from television is that none of these shows really prepare you for what happens when friendships end and how to carry on after that. Instead everything is just summed up into 30-minute self-contained storylines, and life is anything but that. This week, a three-part exploratory thought process on my struggle in making friends, my fear in being left behind, and my reluctance to carrying my own life forward.
* * *
I moved quite a bit when I was a kid, and every time I moved I’d have to start all over again. I would have to make new friends, adapt to a new setting, and in ways settle in to a brand new life. Now, that might be easy for the more extroverted people out there, but for a person who spent most of his childhood learning English and assimilating into American culture, moving to a brand new place would stop me dead in the tracks every single time.
It’s not uncommon for me to not have any friends until years into moving to a brand new school or place. While all the kids were trading baseball cards in elementary school, I was still struggling to tell the difference between a pitcher and a catcher. Years later I found myself in high school, again not knowing anyone. And as with most 9th grade boys, the boys sitting next to me in class were talking about girls and making juvenile sex jokes. Everything they talked and laughed about flew over my head, not just because I was gay but because I was really that innocent at the time. I remember wondering, “Why are they so obsessed with tulips anyways? It’s just a stupid flower.”
Eventually I would meet someone who would open up my world. It usually takes someone completely opposite of me, someone ridiculously talkative with a complete disregard for personal space, someone who would force me to finally speak up. I still remember this conversation with this girl sitting next to me in 10th grade biology class. She was putting on her lipliner at the time, keep in mind this was before I came out to myself and I was very quiet in school until this point:
“Yo, do you think my lips are pretty?” She asked.
“… What? I don’t know.” I muttered.
“You’re not even looking, look at my lips.” She demanded.
“… fine.” I slowly rolled my eyes toward her.
“…I don’t know.”
“How do you not know? This shit should turn you on. Oh shit, are you a fag?”
“Oh my God you totally are! That’s why you don’t think my lips are pretty.” She laughed, proud to have found the answer to the puzzle no one was trying to solve.
“Yeah, okay. Your lips aren’t pretty because they’re not as penis-shaped as I’d like.” I retorted sarcastically.
She paused for a minute, unsure what to make of my comeback, before pushing me slightly replying, “Damn Winson, You’re hilarious!” From there on we started talking more and more in class every day. She eventually transferred to another school later in the year, and I finally began my coming out process that very summer.
* * *
As life happens ever so often, people eventually move on. Schoolmates move away, friends get married, coworkers leaving for greener pastures. And every time that happens I can feel a little part of me breaks off and leaves with them.
Sure, I’m happy for them, but part of me is just… sad knowing that our friendship would never be the same. I also don’t know how to handle this feeling personally, so I would push the sense of loss downward and lift my frown as high as I can to force out a congratulatory smile.
“Ah, well I’m not moving anywhere, we can still hang out,” my friend would say, if not promise, but both of us usually know whats up. The friends I worked so hard to make over the years, the genuine relationships I’ve held so dear to my heart, are whisked away from me one by one by Life’s natural progression.
My heart would drop, if only for a second, every time someone I care about sends me a Facebook message asking for my mailing address, because it signals a possibility that a wedding invitation may be coming my way. And the older I get, the more wedding invites I receive, the more often people move away, and the more times I have to wave goodbye.
People also don’t come nearly as often as they go; my social world is constantly getting smaller. Meanwhile I’ve grown so claustrophobic of my own personal space, terrified of being left behind. There’s nothing scarier than to find yourself alone in the room at the end of every night, with only sound you hear being the echo of your own voice.
* * *
So when your friends are moving on with their lives, the only option for you is to expand your social circle and keep making new friends. But the act of doing so as an adult is often muddled with this illusion that is the professional world of networking.
In middle school I spent most of my hours hanging out with friends after school. We would take the bus together to the arcades. All of us bonded over lying to our parents about where we were, telling them we’re being tutored when in fact we were being schooled at the arcades by much better players. But most importantly, we were having fun because video games are fun, period.
Fast forward to adulthood where most hours are spent at work in front of a computer, along with these after work events with clients, all of them carrying some sort of asterisks. Is this what adult life really about? People chitchatting over drinks, putting on a smile and being polite, laughing about the most mundane part of life?
At a time when we’re collectively complaining about how the word “friend” doesn’t mean anything anymore thanks to Facebook, at a time when every app is social yet we all feel lonelier than ever, our first topic of discussion with one another is the weather?
Networking is supposed to be about meeting new people, building bridges, growing out your contacts, but the actual act of doing so is but a mirage to me. Sure, it may look glamorous from the outside looking in, with everyone wearing their finest clothes, seemingly having the best time while sipping their Old Fashioneds handcrafted from the world’s top bartenders.
But once I’m in the middle of the mirage I just find it to be as socially-drenched as the rest of the desert. I’d find myself talking to a complete stranger, and while nodding and agreeing to whatever sports reference he’s making, I’m mentally digging, desperately searching for the next topic so we can keep the conversation alive. When we’ve finally run out of potential talking points I’d make a polite joke to excuse myself only to repeat this process all over again with another stranger.
Admittedly, some people genuinely love networking and are super great at it. They love meeting new people and the opportunities these leads may bring in. But for me, I’ve never been an extrovert and being in a room to chat with strangers is not only an incredibly energy taxing activity for me, but smiling through the entire process also feels so inauthentic and in ways anti-social, if not altogether meaningless for me.
* * *
It took me a really long time to write this chapter, partly because there was so much I wanted to say, but I also took my time on this because the more I wrote, the more things began surfacing to my mind, including things I didn’t necessarily want to admit to — that perhaps endings are just another form of new beginnings.
While it’s true that TV shows don’t often show how friendships end and how people carry on, they often do tell origin stories, everything from Gotham to How I Met Your Mother. And as I’m writing this I’ve come to realize that without the ending of Cheers there wouldn’t be the beginning of Frasier, without Boy Meets World there wouldn’t be a Girl Meets World, and same goes for Avatar and The Legend of Korra.
At the end of the day, I’m afraid of being left behind because my social circle is shrinking, and meeting new people seems difficult and without much meaning. But looking at my life, it’s also apparent that I’ve moved away a lot from my friends and family, and in a sense I’ve also left a lot of people behind. So maybe the trick isn’t to dwell on the fact that my friends are leaving me to mark a new chapter in their lives, but that we each have our stories to tell. It doesn’t really matter who’s the original series and who’s the spin-off, because if television has truly taught me anything, it’s that there’s always room for reunions and crossovers episodes.