Dear Former Friend

Why do we care about our friends? In fact, why do we care about whether we have friends at all? As the coronavirus violently reduces the spectrum of how we spend our waking hours, I find this question looming on the back of my mind.

Most of the time, I don’t talk about friendship with my friends. I talk (or mostly listen) about other things. A new cafe that opened downtown serving scrambled eggs all day and drip coffee from Colombia. An affidavit assignment due next week (and here’s the model answer from last year). Chef Lucas Tse of Junzi Kitchen sharing the scrambled egg recipe from Australia Dairy Company, a world-famous cafe in Hong Kong. The relative sex appeal of a male member of the university’s table tennis team (not much, in my opinion). The insufferable whiteness of begpacking across Asia. The insufferable whiteness of Hong Kong middle-aged men who would rather be Her Majesty The Queen’s colonial subjects, rather than to subject themselves to Xi Jinping’s rule.

Maybe I don’t talk about friendship, because I don’t want to find out the inconvenient truth of whether my friendship is built on a house of cards. An alliance of convenience between innocents who face a common enemy, whether that be law school, or a scary supervisor at work. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Drop out of law school, or switch your job, and giving up your friendships is part of the cost.

Hanya Yangihara doesn’t think of friendships this way. She wrote a 700-page opus about four men in New York City. Their stories are paradoxical: fantastically removed from reality, and yet a dreadful, photorealistic portrait of our fears and prejudices. Just like friendship, which, she says, is an exchange of everything and nothing:

“To me, the thing about friendship that makes it so singular is that it’s a relationship that’s central to our identity in that it doesn’t necessarily benefit us in any tangible way. It’s a relationship we don’t have to pursue – if we decide to stop being friends one day, nothing will happen, no one’s there to legislate or adjudicate it. It’s two people who every day choose to keep it going, and in that way it’s very powerful because it’s one you choose to work on, and you choose to without any agreement; it’s an unspoken bond.”

Yes, all friendships are voluntary. Someday, perhaps, the people who I speak to semi-regularly in my life right now will stop volunteering their time with me. The transaction has ended. But even if transactional friendships are toxic, I cannot reject absolutely the notion that friendship in its idealized form, with all the evil distilled away, has no benefits to the human mind or body. Like the sun and the air, friends are a source of nourishment and enrichment. I could spend the rest of my time alive in a fluorescent-lit room hooked up to a ventilator, but I would much prefer the privilege of soaking my skin on a grass field in the late afternoon sun.

And I would say the same thing about friendship. Without expecting anything in return, my friends have taught me, challenged me, helped me, confided with me, and opened up to me opportunities that I otherwise thought never existed. During the ugliest moments in my many fights with my parents, my father told me that my family is all I ever will have if I lose all my friends. But when I feel so alienated to the people who conceived me, sometimes my friends knew me better than any family I ever had.

拝啓 元トモ様 (Dear Former Friend), edited by Rhymestar Utamaru’s Weekend Shuffle on TBS Radio and illustrated by Obata Saki.

“Humans live a constantly changing existence, and so the ways humans connect with one another must also change and evolve. (人間というものが、絶えず変わってゆく存在であるかぎり、人との関わり方も必然、常に変化・変質してゆかざるを得ない。)” So begins a book on friendships once made, then lost, which I came across this January on the first floor of Shosen Book Tower, a popular bookstore for nerds in Akihabara, Tokyo.

The book itself compiles dozens of anonymous letters people wrote to a TBS Radio program called Rhymestar Utamaru’s Weekend Shuffle (ライムスター宇多丸のウィークエンド・シャッフル). Utamaru, the program’s host, asked for people to reflect on friends to whom they’ve become estranged. People who happened to be friends because they sat next to each other in class. People who happened to be friends because they were the first to exchange phone contacts. Do you still feel excitement in your veins when you think about them? Or a longing awkwardness?

After being on the fence about the book for a while, I bit the bullet (financially) and got the book from Amazon. The book was full of stories people probably wouldn’t share even during a fresh round of beers at the second izakaya in a night, but nevertheless deserved an outlet to memorialize. A person who didn’t reply to a friend’s wedding invitation because he was going through a breakup, but went to the wedding anyway and never spoke to the groom again. A person who once agreed with her friend never to show their boy’s love doujinshi to anyone, only to visit her house and find out that she and her boyfriend were reading them together. A person who agreed to work for a friend’s startup, only to find out that their friend wasn’t a very good boss, and had poor scheduling habits.

To be honest, I half-expected the letters to be more melodramatic. Where were the confrontations and dress downs? I was expecting memoirs of ugly fights, not whimsical tales from men who were close to their male friends until they married their own girlfriends. (The book is a little heteronormative.) Though to be fair, Utamaru was going to read these letters aloud on the airwaves (and then to archive them forever in a book). Maybe TBS Radio filtered through the most violent and vexatious tales. Or maybe most people suffer their most brutal adjustments as to who they wanted to give up their time and space to in silence. I know I did, and I know I will.

Nevertheless, the book has inspired me to write my own letter to a former friend. If we all get only one chance at life, then maybe we also only get one chance to say what we want. Even if the message doesn’t get across. This one’s for you, C.

Content note:
1. Some readers may find the emotional language contained in the letter below a difficult read.
2. The sixth paragraph of the letter contains language inserted for narrative purposes that some readers may consider homophobic.

Dear C,

“How’s it going? How’s it going? 調子どうですか?”

This is what Yu Sakai sings at the beginning of the chorus to one of my favorite songs in Japanese, 君と僕の挽歌 (The Elegy of You and Me). One of his best friends, an aspiring musician, died in a traffic accident when Sakai was 18. He became a singer-songwriter in his friend’s memory, and he dedicated this song to the friend, who he lost in circumstances he could not control.

Sometimes I tell myself that our friendship died in circumstances beyond our control. Crushed by postgraduate parental expectations about how to start our lives after college, our friendship had mutated into a cancer, a bag of pain in my heart that I had to cut off.

These are harsh words, C. But I do not forget that you were my first friend in secondary school. I would have otherwise spent my first year in this strange and rich place with nothing to do, and no one to talk to, except for that girl on the school bus who thought that “my handwriting was okay, for a boy.” I remember visiting your house at the start of a summer vacation, with my trusty, plastic white MacBook in hand (the only Apple machine in a friend group of nerds), and we would all join a Team Fortress 2 server, mashing our mouse buttons to virtually murder strangers in cold blood. I think Scout was my queer awakening.

You were kind enough to visit me in Tokyo when I was at Waseda University. I loved having friends visit me in Tokyo, because it was so hard to make friends at Waseda. We went to a bunch of cool places. Do you remember waiting for two hours for a luxurious dinner of deep fried pork cutlet at Tonki, in Ebisu, where we watched (with considerable concern) a very old man, with his back bent permanently at a right angle, make decisive cuts on a slab of freshly fried meat? Do you remember walking down Yanaka Ginza on a sweltering afternoon, where we got the cutest Yorkshire Terrier to sit on my lap at a bakery overflowing with potted plants? Do you remember me suggesting the idea that we should go to a gay bar to see what it’s like, only for you to reject the idea, because you’re “not gay” (even though you would later tell me no less than a dozen times to watch Yuri!!! on Ice, a commercial celebration of a Russian-Japanese same-sex relationship)?

Dinnertime at Tonki. Photographed July 2016.

Something irrevocably changed in our friendship after that summer after we hung out in Tokyo. On reflection, I could have been a better friend and simply asked: “how’s it going?” You were under considerable pressure to get a job in the United States in your senior year of college. You told me that your new full time job was “recruiting”. You told me you had 12 hours of case interview practice a day. You told me you were too tired to even considering downloading Cities: Skylines, perhaps the greatest game to come out in a generation. And you were the one who introduced gaming to me.

I became drawn to your obsessive aura with getting a management consultant job. I started to wonder if management consulting was a career for me. It was not, but I didn’t know better at the time. I became obsessed with wasting money on case interview books. I had no idea why I kept coming to you to look at cover letters. And so you became to contrast my failures with your apparent successes. Our friendship changed into a constant comparison game. My very existence became a vindication of how correct your life choices were, and therefore how incorrect everyone else’s was.

You would later tell me that you “personally had no idea that my behavior was rubbing you in such a wrong fashion”. But if that was the case, why, after I asked for you to help me a download an article for my thesis that I somehow couldn’t find on Georgetown University’s servers, did you send me an email with that article with the subject line, “Your Cornell Academic Subsidy”? Why did you ask me about how my fall semester finals were going, just to ask me, “Feeling prepared or panicked?” Why did you tell me that you were jealous of me taking up Japanese in college? Why did you silently stalk me on social media, only to tell me that you “see on Snapchat that you’ve been suffering with a final paper”, or even, “It seems that you’re procrastinating right now”? Why did you text me out of the blue that you did get a management consulting job in New York City, and that you were “pretty chuffed about [your] pay”? In fact, why were you the only person I knew who would brag about becoming employed completely unprompted? When I told you that I couldn’t find a job in the United States, why did you say that, “I have nothing else to say lest I look like I’m rubbing my job security in”? Was “need I remind you, you scored 45/45” the only reaction you could muster? Why were you still obsessed with our high school examination grades a full four years after we left those hallways of horror? Why did you tell me that you then went to Japan with your family, and then say, “I take back any instances when I may have laughed at you due to your Book-Off addiction”? When I tried to hide the fact that I was returning to Hong Kong for law school, why did you keep peppering me with questions about what I was going to do the summer after college? Why was you first reaction “2 years of lawyering suffering [sic]” when I finally caved in? On graduation day, why did you even take the time to text me, “now law school looms in the distance”? Didn’t you have your own graduation to attend to? Weren’t you supposed to be listening to Joe Biden, your commencement speaker—a fact you told me out of the blue with the intention of flashing your Ivy League credentials? Or were you so obsessed with counting the number of tennis balls that can fit in a Boeing 747 that you no longer knew how to count the number of friends you had left in Cornell by then?

I believe that only the closest of friends confront each other for their failures. C, do you remember what you told me after I confronted you about all of the above? These were the exact words is what you told me over Facebook Messenger:

“When I speak of Cornell, I speak of it from a source of deep school pride. I do not seek to belittle your own experiences at Georgetown or your current studies at HKU. When I highlight your IB scores, I only seek to emphasize the triumphs that your intelligence and work ethic have brought you. When I talk of stress, I seek to inject a degree of levity and use it as a common source of commiseration, I do not seek to undermine your current experiences. When I ask you how you are doing, I am genuinely curious about what you have done recently and not ticking off some checkboxes and scoring your efforts against mine.”

C, do you even realize what you’re saying? “Emphasize the triumphs that your intelligence and work ethic have brought you”? To whom? For what purpose? After a decade of knowing each other, am I just a spreadsheet of numbers and random resume achievements unfit for a management consulting candidate? Do you management-consult your “true friends”, as you emphasized that I was to you until the very end, into the depths of hell? Do you realize how much hurt you’ve generated, to the point that I’m pretending to write to a TBS Radio program, just to show the world how rotten our friendship had become?

Even if that’s the case, C, I wish you well. I saw on LinkedIn that you got promoted at your company last July. LinkedIn seems to be the only social network you’re active on right now. You’re probably a minor millionaire in New York by now.

If you were still my friend, you could be a punch line at a dinner party—after all, I know of no one else who told me he was willing to live in New Jersey to work in Manhattan.

With warmest regards,

Notes and further reading

  1. Shosen Book Tower is one of the biggest general bookstores in Akihabara and has an amazing collection of publications, commercial and self-made, on just about every hobby imaginable. I try to stop by whenever I’m in the east side of Tokyo.
  2. 君と僕の挽歌 is also the ending song to (the second season of) an anime called Kimi to Boku, which itself is a manga about four teenage high school students and their purely platonic friendships. The song itself is five minutes long, which is too long, and too sad, to sing at karaoke, except perhaps in the small hours of the morning, when you’re the only one awake in the room, and everyone else is asleep waiting for the first train.
  3. Multiple travel blogs have also noticed the very old man working at Tonki. Contrary to my and other people’s speculations, that man, if I am reading this article correctly, is actually not the big boss behind Tonki. He’s just a very seasoned employee.
  4. In case you’re wondering, every single quote from C in my letter is real. (I have the receipts.) They’re extracted from messages that C sent to me over the course a year. I only edited the text for better grammar flow. I’ve indicated those edits using square brackets. So you can be the judge of whether I’m being melodramatic by writing this essay, or whether C is just awful.
  5. Also, in case you’re wondering, I’m not (or at least I believe I’m not) a melodramatic bitter bean. However, I did think that my and C’s relationship became so extraordinary (and extraordinarily toxic) that I felt compelled to share my story. I publish my words here not with the intention to hurt C in any way, but to invite all of us to reflect on the destructive atmosphere college “recruiting” creates among friends, the importance of adult friendships, and the ways we might help and hurt each other.