A couple of weeks back, my friend, Yao wrote to me from Taiwan, asking me to record a video message as a wedding gift for him and his soon-to-be wife Kuam. After assuring him that I would send one at my earliest, I sat down to reflect on the unparalleled joy technology could bring, if harnessed correctly.
And it took me down memory lane when I had first met Yao at a backpacker’s hostel where we bonded over broken English, tea and biscuits, and a universal charger adapter for iPhones. We met sporadically over the next few months, always greeting each other with broad smiles and cheers. One of the most beautiful memories that would always stay with me as it altered the way I perceived people, is of him introducing me to his friends from Taiwan, who were visiting him in Europe. He introduced me to his friends, in Taiwanese, as his honoured friend, and introduced them to me similarly. I have ever since marvelled at the idea of referring to friends this way.
That evening, I went down for my customary walk along the Grand Canal, still thinking and marvelling over the idea of referring to friends as ‘honoured’. And it reminded me of the idiom ‘A man is known by the company he keeps’. More importantly, it drew my attention to the second part of the idiom which is rarely quoted, ‘Our character is reflected in our choice of friends.’ I realised how important an attribute it was, when Yao had chosen to introduce me as his honoured friend. We are sociable beings and yes, the quality of the company we keep, more often than not, defines our place in the world, our standing in society and other such man-made complex barriers. It is for that very reason that you wouldn’t see a well-dressed man hang around seedy bars frequented by drunkards and meth addicts and you wouldn’t ordinarily see a working class person hang around with the aristocracy and the who’s who of the city. This is division of a rigid, straightforward kind, where we are taught to compartmentalise our thoughts and feelings and share them with a like-minded person from the same stratum of society. In our current times, these feelings have taken a rather extremist turn, but that is not what I am contemplating on here.
So, my thought was fixated on the second part of the idiom. The one that spoke of reflecting characteristics. In calling me his honoured friend, Yao was giving me a glimpse of his own wonderful persona. Over time, in life, we all make friends, some stay on, some leave, some get kicked out of our life and some kick us out of theirs. But throughout this process of forming and breaking bonds, there is a great deal of learning that we fail to pick up. In my case, it made me think of how I treated my friends, and spoke of them or spoke to them. It made me think of how they spoke to me or spoke of me as well. It afforded me the sight to see my friends from the old world, as well as those from the new world, in new light.
It made me realise quite a few things. The most important is that the dynamics of friendships will alter over the years. And that may cause the bonds to strengthen, or fray, be firm or break off.
But through it all, these changes would also reflect our individual characteristics — how we deal with them and treat the friend as well. It gave me clarity over why some friendships stood the test of time and transcended from the old world to the new and why some had to be severed as holding onto them meant risking a gangrene affecting your soul.
No matter what the current standing of that friendship is, it leaves an indelible mark on your character. How we choose to use that mark — to strengthen ourselves or embitter ourselves is something that is completely upto us. However, our methods of treating those relationships also reflect our own personalities in front of the world and more importantly, to our own self.
All these thoughts kept running through my head late that evening as I sat down to compose a letter to Yao and Kuan. I began by writing, ‘My honoured friend Yao...’
(Rohan Swamy is a former journalist, writer, photographer, now working at Trinity College, Dublin)