How to make a friend
“Can you describe to me what your social life is like at site?” I eagerly asked a fellow Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer at our joint swearing in/close of service ceremony.
He was tall and handsome, so I hoped his answer might be something like “It was a waste without you” or “Who cares, let’s get dinner.”
“My best friend at site was a sixth-grade girl!” another Volunteer chimed in.
I was annoyed not only by the interruption but also by the idea. Peace Corps always touts the relationships Volunteers build with people from the host country. Surely my best friend wouldn’t be a sixth-grade girl. Surely I would have a real friend.
Two months passed. My principal and his family had taken me on a trip to visit his wife’s parents in a neighboring province and I had just been informed that they were bringing me back to stay at their house for the night, where apparently I would be staying with his sixth-grade daughter, Noon.
“Tonight, you will sleep with my daughter!” my principal announced happily.
His wife wheeled around from the front seat to grin at me.
“You and Noon are friends. You are sisters.”
Next to me in the backseat, Noon squirmed uncomfortably. She had always been too shy to talk. Plus, she had a room. She didn’t need to put up with this. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” or “Let’s pretend we didn’t hear,” or “If we keep our bodies loose, jumping out of a moving car shouldn’t be that bad.”
But instead I grinned stupidly back and said, “Yes. Friends.”
As I lay stiffly in bed next to an equally stiff Noon, I thought about the Volunteer with the sixth-grade friend. Instead of feeling superior and judgmental as I had initially, I felt envious. I couldn’t even get this sixth-grader to be my friend.
When I had arrived at my host mother’s house a couple of months earlier, she told me she had two college-aged daughters who came to stay on weekends. I was thrilled. Most of my friends were college-aged girls! I wondered if I should make the best friend bracelets beforehand, then figured I would wait to learn their favorite colors. What shenanigans we would get into for me to recount years later at their weddings – in fluent Thai, no doubt. This was going to be great.
It quickly became clear that no best friend bracelets would be necessary. Apparently, I was living in the room where Ae and Aom usually stayed, which meant they were exiled to the living room. During our first dinner, I strained to make conversation in Thai but they remained fixed to their phones, ignoring the strange woman who lived in their room and wouldn’t shut up about varieties of fruit.
The teachers at my school were incredibly nice but as with everyone at my site, I never felt that I could truly be myself. It was a huge departure from my life in America, where no thought was left unsaid and my friends and family were subject to a litany of complaints and observations throughout the day (subject lines from the “Friends” folder in my Gmail include “Ha!”, “Plz advise” and “Um bonjour?”). And while it was probably the best for my community and, honestly, humanity as a whole, it was lonely and draining. I was surrounded by kind, giving people who took great care of me, but I didn’t feel close to anyone.
A few months later, my co-teacher flew into our classroom, flustered.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
She took her head in her hands and inhaled deeply.
“This morning the principal called me at 5:30 a.m. to tell me that he wanted me to organize a party for the whole school and 10 visiting principals. For. This. Afternoon.”
“Oh my.” I treaded softly, knowing that if I made any sudden movements, I would scare her back into her shell of goodwill. “That sounds... difficult.”
“I am angry,” she muttered, before catching herself and breaking into a bright smile. “But only a little angry!”
She hurried away to make her preparations and I sat smiling in my chair, feeling like I had just found a pearl, a beautiful, delicate pearl of rage.
Kru Jiw has the best English at our school, self-taught from reading the Harry Potter books. She’s 41, divorced, has a 14-year-old daughter and loves puns. She’s smart and honest, and always keeps me in line (“You don’t say it like that” and “You’re supposed to do it like this” are some of her most common phrases). She carries around an iPad to translate things when she can’t express them... and to play Bejeweled. She has me over to her house to talk and play Uno with her daughter. She told me that she doesn’t like America because of what she sees on the news, but that she likes me.
A few weeks ago, Kru Jiw, a few other teachers and I went to visit another province. That evening, as Kru Jiw drove me home, I was slumped against the window, exhausted.
“Maddie ka,” Kru Jiw said, “Can I tell you something strange?”
I peeled myself off the window and rubbed my eyes.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Well, you know, I am much older than you. But I don’t feel like you are so much younger than me. I feel like you are my friend.”
I smiled. I did it. I had a friend.