There are a few things I miss very much as a result of living and traveling in Europe.
1) A nice mattress. Traveling with a budget in mind doesn’t allow for frequently booking 4 star hotels with a good, firm bed. After long rides on the bus and airplane, I daydream about being back home in Boston, lying on our extra firm, extra awesome bed. I miss you, bed.
2) Playing pickup basketball. Yes, I know soccer is the sport in Europe, and Spanish soccer needs no introductions. But you’d think basketball would be decently popular, given Spain’s not-too-shabby skills in the world arena. Nope! Many basketball hoops are hung above courts clearly meant for small-scale soccer (crime, I tell you), and too often I’ve found them quite empty, like my heart.
3) A good burger In-N-Out.
And before I get too off-topic, 4) Friendship.
No, it’s not that I don’t have people to talk to. On the contrary, during my time in Spain I’ve made some great friends between church and my quest to learn Spanish. And of course my wife is my perennial best friend who’s always around. So what exactly do I mean by saying that I miss friendship?
It’s actually a topic I’ve had to more frequently think about since starting college. Moving from SoCal to rural Massachusetts to attend college was a huge culture shock. Here’s a little overview: before college, I wouldn’t have been exaggerating much (if at all) were I to say that 99% of my close friends and friend circles were Korean-American. Even within this ethnic bubble, I found it easy to construct another bubble for the closest of friends. In this inner-inner bubble, we shared many things beyond our ethnic background: faith, beliefs, expectations and hopes regarding educational trajectory, style of humor, general topics of interest (ex. school, sports, food, faith), political leanings, lives as members of immigrant families, and more. In my small, liberal arts college, I became a part of a much more diverse community. Looking at the list above, I can say with absolute confidence that all of the above were turned upside down: different faiths, beliefs, educational trajectories, styles of humor, general topics of interest, political leanings… some were immigrants, many were not. This culture shock effectively undid the tidy social code I had developed while in my SoCal bubble. Friendship suddenly had become quite unpredictable and unfamiliar.
Of course, this does not mean that I did not make any friends during my college years! But I have to admit that I was often frustrated by how friendships just didn’t feel the same in college. I often felt like I didn’t really belong and blamed that feeling on those around me. Why are they so different from me? Why do they act that way? Why can’t they be more normal, like the friends I had back home in California? If you are a friend from college, I beg you to bear with me a little more, so you don’t leave feeling dissed or betrayed (seriously).
In December 1999, my family moved from South Korea to the United States. I started school in the 3rd grade. Suffice it to say that starting life in an entirely new place with a new language and culture changed the arrogant, manipulative, cunning little brat that I was into a quiet, reserved, shy kid. I was more often than not the one who was out of place, both in school and church. Most of us know exactly what it’s like to try to fit in, to belong. I remember very clearly that that was very difficult for me for a long time. Over the years, I developed my social code to being “normal” in my communities. I developed a sense of humor. I learned how to play basketball. Learned the when’s, the what’s, and the how’s of conversations.
And here’s the twisted thing about all this. How did I develop a sense of humor? How did I learn to play basketball? And to hold up a conversation? I was the one who was out of place. I didn’t know how to really talk with people. I was super shy. I was one of the “weird” kids. In the end, I only learned how to be “me” because I had people who gave me a chance. People who treated me like an adult, even though I was a confused kid. People who were always willing to talk to me even though I might say something really dumb or immature. People who passed me the ball even though I didn’t really know how to play basketball. People who took the time to hang out with me even though they could have done something else with that time. These were people who, despite my being different and having shortcomings, let me grow up alongside them into the person I am.
And isn’t that what friendship is? Bearing with all that each of us are, we help each other grow, polishing and sharpening each other over time. I had reaped so much benefit from the selflessness of friends around me, but I wasn’t willing to do the same when faced with the differences of people around me. I wanted my bubble-within-a-bubble back; while I don’t think that by itself was a bad desire, it did tempt me to make unfair comparisons between old and new groups of friends more often than I’d like to admit. It perhaps kept me away from taking that extra step in nurturing new friendships, and that was bad.
Just to be clear and cautious, I want to say that I am not labeling any of my friends as confused kids or people who say dumb or immature things. I mention those as things specific to my case only – though I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one 🙂 – and am not trying to refer to anyone else. Also, I’m not saying that there is a correct social “code” that everyone needs to grow into. Yes, there is common sense and etiquette, but it’s absurd to say there is one or a few “normal” ways to do life, when everyone takes in life and dances with it a little differently. Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite grasped that in previous years and had made my own way of life to be the “normal” way.
But also fortunately, none of this is rigid and permanent. I will have ample opportunities to discover, rediscover, and cultivate friendships old and new. I will have chances to learn to appreciate how strangely and brilliantly different we all are, instead of balking at our differences. Chances to share with friends the same kind of patience and intentionality that I’ve received from countless others in the past. But it is also true that I still often find myself resistant to change, judgmental and arrogant. It’s no surprise that my struggle with friendship has followed me after graduating from college. One thing is for sure: seeing just how flawed I am makes me wonder how I’ve gotten to know such an enviable group of friends so far in my life. It convinces me that – and I don’t say this lightly – my friends are truly God-given. It’s with that confidence that I hope to surely root out my prideful, judgmental mindset and better nurture my friendships near and far for many years to come.