Sup friends! Last week, I wrote about being ready to accept yourself, in my case through rediscovering my love for Tamil music. This week, I’m excited to say that I have a guest. My good friend and fellow writer Aparna Sridaran and I traded some thoughts about friendship—our changing expectations for it, how we manage long-distance friendships, how do you make friends virtually, etc.—and I’ve shared her thoughts on my questions here below.
(Next week, I’ll share my answers to her questions. Stay tuned for this two-part series!)
Some context. Aparna and I grew up as family friends before developing our own friendship in college and beyond. We’d visit each other’s houses for Hindu holidays and sing bhajans in front of each other’s parents, and then in college, we’d meet up for dinner or drinks and talk about which classes we hate or what our MBTI results were or how our relationships with our faith have changed. After that, we lived in vastly different areas, me in Seattle, her in metro-Detroit, but we’ve stayed in touch, doing writing exercises, Netflix parties, and long catch-up sessions that usually wind and meander through dozens of topics. During last year’s pandemic summer, she helped me run Desi Voices, the writing workshop for Indian American middle school kids.
So here we are now, pondering about things, taking the conceptual egg of friendship and cracking it wide open to reveal its juicy yolk. Read on to figure out the secrets we’ve unearthed!
Chuckry Asks Aparna…
1. The Heart of a Friendship
Chuckry: To start: a simple question. What is most important to you in your friendships, and how has that changed over time?
Aparna: I’ve always found this particular answer to be pretty elusive to me. It almost feels like there is something intangible about a friendship that really lasts. It’s taken the wisdom of aging to start to understand what moves me about another person. I have found, and continue to find friendships in unexpected places—ones that transcend age demographics, belief systems (within reason, I can’t be friends with an out-and-out bigot), and sometimes even shared interests. I think I try to seek out people who are different from me because I am curious about stories I might not be exposed to if I stayed in my comfort zone. I obviously don’t treat people as feathers in a cap, but I don’t want to be sheltered either. That’s likely the writer in me. But it goes deeper; I think I need those relationships to expose different sides of myself too.
It’s not hard for me to get along with different kinds of people, and I tend to fit in most settings. But as I grow up I am struggling with the impulse of our culture and our generation to divide ourselves based on certain beliefs, to participate in cancelling one another based on indiscretions, and to limit our circles based on certain identity markers, whether that’s feminist, anti-racist, liberal, leftist, and more. In the past, I have let my desire to not judge on first impression expose me to circles of people who were either openly, intentionally racist and/or homophobic, or performative in all aspects of their value systems. On the other hand, I grew up in an ethnically and religiously diverse community which included a lot of white working class Americans. People who are fundamentally good and kind, even if they don’t know to say all the right things. These are among the people who have been my parents’ lifelong friends and reprieve from the merciless judgement of parts of the affluent Hindu-Indian community. For my own part, I would not have some of the most important friendships of my life if I limited my friendships based on demographics alone, but it’s difficult to be around people who don’t feel like society needs a reset in many ways. All to say, this is something I’m still working through in terms of who remains a permanent fixture in my life and who doesn’t deserve that place.
I think it comes down to a few things. At the beginning, it’s about chemistry; compatible senses of humor, conversation styles, and an ability to share comfort in silence. And I think long-term, kindness, compassion, good communication and boundary-setting, and a willingness to show up in hard times are things I expect from everyone in my life. And also, do I have the capacity to show up for this person in the way that they need me to? I’ve learned that some people need more time and energy from me than I am willing or able to give them, and that’s not toxic, it’s just incompatibility. I also think as I grow older, a sense of spirituality is becoming more important to me in relationships. Though I am a person of faith, I don’t mean this in a faith-based sense. I define it more as a dedication to personal growth, a curiosity about the world, and a sense of humility that we as human beings don’t know everything. These are all things I want to continue to cultivate in myself, and I need my relationships to support that evolution as well.
2. The Structure of a Friendship
Chuckry: One thing I admire about you is that you have a large, diverse set of friends from various parts of your life. You’ve kept friendships with family friends, college roommates, even old teachers. How do you build long term friendships? What structures or expectations do you set to make sure your relationships will work consistently?
Aparna: I have learned that the best, and I’m starting to think the only way to build long term friendships (and I actually feel like this extends to all relationships) is to take things one day at a time. Reflecting on my closest friendships, the ones that have had the most longevity are the ones that I never expected to last. Not in the sense that I expected them to fizzle out, but that I didn’t have any expectations for them at all. I didn’t overly analyze them, I didn’t try to make that connection because I thought “this person will add value to my life in this way”, or even subconsciously think that being with them might make me cooler or smarter. I didn’t try to plan too far in the future or worry about whether we were going to be friends for life. Without exception, any time I’ve done the aforementioned things, the relationship has fallen apart. The one thing everyone in my life has in common right now is that I initially wanted them in my life for no reason other than that I really, really dug them. This might seem obvious, but I think we form relationships for selfish reasons more frequently than we care to admit.
On that note, to answer your second question, I think I try not to set expectations so much, but to set structures that work for both of us. I don’t need someone to communicate with me in a certain way, but I do need consistency. If you prefer to text, text me at least semi-regularly. If you’re not into texts and instead you’re a caller, or a video chatter, or a Netflix-partier, that’s cool too, but you gotta make it happen at least some of the time. In person, I don’t always like to spend money and I know many of my friends are financially limited too, so I try to curate experiences to avoid resentment or discomfort. Staying home and cooking a meal and spending time outdoors are my friendship staples. You said something in one of your answers that really intrigued me about most friendships being lopsided. I’ve found that if I let expectations and my own insecurities about whether I deserve friendships and love from other people get the best of me, then I start to overanalyze and feel bad for myself and it spirals from there. But I actually think that when I step back, most of my friendships aren’t lopsided, but instead go in waves. Sometimes I have more bandwidth and can do more of the planning and supporting, but other times my friends will initiate and reach out a lot when I’m the one struggling to manage my life. Life happens in seasons, and relationships have them too.
3. Friendship Through A Screen
Chuckry: One of the things you mentioned when we talked was how the virtual aspect of a friendship (phone calls, texting, etc.) can feel more like a support system than a real way to spend time. During the pandemic, when everything was virtual, how’d you stay in touch with your friends? Was it mostly “support system”-type of connecting or did you find ways to truly spend time with each other?
Aparna: I think there are a lot of things that are missing from virtual friendships. The two major things that come to mind are having experiences together, and sharing silence together. I think we all need a balance of conversations and deep talks with someone, and experiencing life with them. Shared memories are impactful, and they’re the things I look back on the most. Even though conversations can be priceless, it’s hard to remember all the long talks I’ve had with someone unless they were major breakthrough moments or otherwise touched me in some way. But I can remember even the most mundane afternoons I’ve spent with my friends, studying or drinking coffee, or wandering around together, or evenings cooking dinners together and having a few drinks. These kinds of memories go back to the childhood and teenage years for many of us. Something critical lies in experiences.
The best thing I’ve tried to do is to replicate the value of those experiential moments by virtual means. This includes watching a TV show or movie together (something you and I have done a lot). I actually find that friends have been more inclined to watch things together virtually during the pandemic than most of my friends were to Netflix and chill in person. Odd, but true in my case. I also have been trying to do virtual work dates, writing jams, and sometimes just hang sessions with people where we read or fuck around on our computers in silence. It’s not the same as just sharing space with someone there with you, but it at least simulates that feeling.
Inevitably, the thing that’s easiest to arrange is a phone call or video call. And I’m down for that; as you know, I love to talk, and my friends frequently need to just talk about everything and nothing. But it’s difficult to experience other parts of people when you’re only talking one-on-one a lot and you don't see them in any other light. I offset that by indulging in the aspects of long distance friendships that I truly love. I love to send packages with books I’ve picked out and homemade baked goods. I love to write letters and postcards. I don’t drive long distances very much these days, but one of my favorite things to do on a long drive is to call a friend and get into deep conversational territory. Focusing on the road leaves me uninhibited, so I always find that I discover things about myself and others that I wouldn’t if I was 100% focused on a call. I think it’s worth noting that the flip side of in-person relationships is that to a degree, they are always based in proximity. Long-distance relationships have always meant something special: choice. Even though they take less effort in the age of technology, they still require intent and initiative without the obligation you have to people in your immediate surroundings. When you go out of your way to talk to someone across space and time, you’re choosing them in a way you can never choose them in person.
4. Friendships & Social Media
Chuckry: A few people I know have made friends through social media, literally just DM’ing a rando on Twitter or Instagram and starting up a virtual friendship. Now you, having been one of the earliest advocates of it, have made friends through Tumblr in the past. What was that like? How was it different from meeting new people in person, or from other social media?
Aparna: Harking back to my last answer, I think retrospectively my online friendships existed in a vacuum in some ways, but were rich in many other ways. Of course, we were missing the normalcy of in-person friendships, where you can do things together and feel the energy of being around that person. But I think what was so special about having an online presence when we were teenagers is that your online friends or friend circle were experiencing a collective generational moment together in real time. For many of us Zillennials (1995-99 crew), the platforms for this were early Tumblr and YouTube, and for a select sub-culture, the now-defunct Vine. I imagine that TikTok and even Instagram will play a similar role of shared nostalgia for the current Gen Z teenagers, but what was so remarkable about that period of time was that it came before monetization was a major player in social media influencer culture. Most of the “influencers” at that time were just people clowning around in their bedroom into their crappy cameras, or engaging in some ridiculous and wholly nonsensical pop culture discourse that would have no effect on any larger movement. A friend of mine calls it the “Wild West of the Internet Age”. I could digress into the nuances of what being online was like at the time. When it comes to how it shaped those friendships though, I think nothing can replace the nostalgia of having witnessed cultural touchpoints that are rendered simpler times in contrast to what social media is like today. In fact, I’ve made a handful of friends later on in real life where we revealed conspiratorially (being on Tumblr is kind of like fight club, mostly because we’re all a little embarrassed by it) that we had been online in that era, and it sparked an instantaneous bond every time.
With Tumblr specifically, anonymity is standard practice, so you had to make friends based solely on two things: your opinions, and your interests. This was most frequently pop culture, but it could’ve been anything, even hobbies. Our generational predecessors who used AIM and other chat rooms will probably relate to this. It seemed like many of the young people on there had been educated in internet safety, and most people were very slow to reveal their true identities, if they did at all. We almost acted like celebrities, coyly avoiding any details that might reveal anything about our real lives. I only ever connected with one friend on Facebook, eventually meeting up with her in person and calling her regularly. Most of the other friends I made on there still only know me by my username, my icon, and my written word. I don’t think that made them any less real though. I could talk about my issues, my dreams, and my hot takes with them, with less fear of judgement than in real life.
I also had friends who lived all over the world, particularly South Asians and members of the South Asian diaspora. I had the opportunity at a young age to meet and learn from other South Asian teenagers who were passionate about art, literature, history, and politics. People who were activists, creatives, or aspiring to change the world in some way. People who could teach me what it was like to be brown if you stayed in the Motherland, and people who could teach me what being Asian in the Commonwealth was like. I would never have met other teenagers like that at age 15 if it hadn’t been for my online presence. It opened up my world and developed my sense of Indian identity outside of the pre-packaged American Born Confused Desi culture which centers Bollywood and Bhangra. The latter was something I never fit into, so the value of knowing my truest self was still a valid expression of South Asian identity was priceless.
5. Friendships Over Time
Chuckry: It’s interesting how friendships can change depending on context. Like we used to be family friends growing up, seeing each other at cultural events and dinner parties, but only late in college did we start to become friends on our own terms. What are some of the most interesting contexts or situations in which your relationship with someone changed?
Aparna: The best example I can think of has been my dear friend Dawn, who is my former school librarian. I was nine years old when we met, and she was in her early 60s. She’s a tiny woman with the most brilliant silver hair down her back. She has a free-spirited bohemian air to her that I recognize now as likely having her values shaped by coming of age with the hippie movement and the rise of environmental activism. We became instant best friends, beyond me just being the nerdy girl who spent all my time in the library. I was actually a pretty outgoing kid; I had a lot of friends in my classes at that age, I just really wanted to hang out with Dawn instead. We’d read books together, talk for hours about them. She’d take me on little trips to bookstores and author readings. Everything about her was magical, and still is, though now that I’m an adult she’s more of a whole person to me. She retired when I was about twelve, after which we lost touch for a few years until I started college.
When we reconnected, the spark was the same, but I was a young woman. I could connect with her about things my own mom or grandmother (being Indian women from orthodox families who had arranged marriages) wouldn’t know much about, like dating and relationships, love and losing love, and being fulfilled and single at the same time. I was finally old enough to listen to her and give her insight into things she was struggling with. I asked her once if she felt like she had to hold back when I was a child, and she said no, that she felt like it was a true, reciprocal friendship even then. Of course she couldn’t have conversations that weren’t age appropriate, but she never felt like she was censoring herself to talk to a kid. I find that so fascinating even now. I truly think it has less to do with my being precocious or her being a children’s educator, and speaks more to my earlier point about how some friendships just transcend demographics.
Other Things Of Note
This interview by Fantastic Man with Ocean Vuong.
Only Child is a bi-weekly newsletter where I find excitement in the mundane. Tell your friends and enemies to subscribe!
—Chuckry Vengadam (@churrthing)