“Do you think we’d still be friends if I didn’t live in Japan anymore?”
The question had been agonising me for a while. But when I finally picked up the nerve to ask it – after work when everyone else had gone home and the shopping centre was dark and silent – I tried to keep my tone as casual as possible.
I looked up from my phone to find my manager looking slightly bewildered.
“What?” she asked sharply, and then carefully, “why?”
I shrugged. “You know…” – No, her expression told me, I don’t know – “like, not that I want to go back to Australia yet, but I don’t know how long I’ll be in Japan for… you know, in the long run. And neither of us are great at messaging so we only really talk when we see each other. And I don’t know how quickly I’ll forget Japanese if I don’t use it every day or whether you’ll still understand my accent… Yeah. I dunno. Think we’ll still be friends?”
She sighed and returned to her report, albeit it with a distinct air of relief.
“Sure. It’s ok,” she said with a patronising smile. “Now wait. I’m working.”Sometimes, people ask me, “How did you make friends in Japan?”
I find this question laughable. Because despite hearing that friends are the family we choose, for me, this is simply not true. Friendship, for me anyway, is something that just…happens. Without choice.
One day, I’m struggling to keep conversations running. The next, we’re writing assignments in each other’s beds, or napping in each other’s cars, or becoming the butt of too many inside jokes, or having no idea when we stopped keeping score of who paid for what.
But, despite my genuine affection, best intentions, and affinity for technology, I find that distance usually complicates my friendships.
It’s not that I’m going out of my way to ignore your messages. I just don’t want to type out a huge conversation or reply right now. Maybe later, when it’s been a little too long for the social norm.
The friendships at most risk? Definitely the Prison Cell Friendships. (Having only thought this before, I now realise how terrible the name is. But whatever! I’m sticking with it regardless.) Anyway, my theory is that everyone’s more likely, perhaps subconsciously, to initiate friendship and maintain it when they’re confined together for literally hours on end every day. Like a school, or an office, or a prison cell. Once you’ve been released from the cell, …well, life happens right? You go your seperate ways and find yourself a new cell.
Lately, I’ve started thinking about friendships differently here in Japan. It’s hard not to, especially when no one expects you to stay long.
When you first arrive, most locals treat you as a welcome, albeit slightly novel, passing guest in the area. “Foreign” is almost synonymous with “temporary”. Loved ones back home assume that it’s just an “Eat, Pray, Love”-esque self-discovery phase.
It’s only after that one year mark that people begin to accept that maybe you were more serious about this expat thing that they’d first thought.
Still, I hear, “So, what’s next after Japan?” now as often as I heard, “Which uni are you going to?” in high school. And much like it was back then, I might have a vague idea of what interests me but nothing’s set in stone. What happens beyond my current situation depends on a lot of variables beyond my control.
Leaving Japan seems like an inevitability. Chances are that this current community that I’m embedded in will one day become overseas friends who I used to be really close to, once upon a time.
And – in a way that I still cannot find eloquent words for – that really sucks.
“Oh come on,” said お兄ちゃん. “You still talk to your friends in Australia, don’t you? Didn’t you meet up with an old boss in Korea?”
And indeed I did. That first manager was my first boss at a retail store. She used to indulge me as a little sister, protecting me from irrational customers and letting me use the store email to make friends with another worker at a different branch who I never met in person.But it always came with a warning: “Get real, Lil P. What, you think you’ll get a boss like me doing journalism?”
And I believed her.
Then I went into radio, where I met my next manager. This one immediately took me under her wing and half bullied the rest of the station employees to do the same.She gave me a similar warning: “You’re sucked in! I set the bar high. Good luck ever leaving me! Mine forever! Hahaha.”
(I feel like now’s a good time to mention that she’s a lovely person with a competitive streak.)
Fair point though, I thought, knowing that my next job would be in the reserved country of Japan.
But it seems that even here, I’m well looked after. Not only by the manager but also by お兄ちゃん and my chill head teacher and, well, the entire office.The truth is, a lot of these friends who I’ve written about have already moved out of our little prison cell – my sassy assistant manager, my chill head teacher, and, one day, even me.
And while it does suck that these friendships are likely to become overseas friendships in time, past experience tells me that they’ll last despite the distance, and that I’ll make new friends in whatever prison cell I end up in next.