Saturday, December 22, 2007

What is friendship?

It took me a while to figure out what BFF meant. I am so new to American forms of socialization that I can not help but always make comparisons with my own indigenous “culture” (if I may call it that) reason being that in my native East Africa, I am an immigrant that got cut off from their original cultural group. My people assimilated into new tribes and merged the remains of their old and adopted some from the new. So a lot of my cultural narratives are really a mix of numerous ones with nothing quite original.

Back to the subject at hand. We do not have the concept of best friendship. If someone is so close, the tradition is that they become part of the family. There are ceremonial rituals to tie the bond that then turns the relationship into a brotherhood/sisterhood and you become part of each other’s families. One very common one is the dipping of a coffee bean into an open cut in one’s arm and then exchanging the beans with your ‘sister’/’brother’ who dips it in theirs. (This practice is less common now because of AIDS after a lot of infections took place this way).

In America it seems like a requirement to have a best friend. I was surprised to discover that people were even possessive of their friends. The idea is, ‘if you are my best friend, I can not share you with someone else’ Ha!
Growing up, such friendships were discouraged. I have come up with a hypothesis as to why these two worlds view friendship differently. Traditional African societies are more communal and so there is less individualism. When individuals start bonding in exclusive friendships this threatens the community. They think of them as forming little clicks or gangs that are up to no good. On the other hand in the Western world where its every man for himself there is need for friendship in order for one to exist in a healthy state.
However my experiences with making friends out here have been met with disappointment. And this is mainly due to cultural differences.

My first good female friend in America was of Norwegian origin though she grew up in East Africa and therefore we had that in common to begin with. Now this is were racial matters become tricky. I grew up with out knowledge of racism. So it came as quite a shock on arrival in the Western World. This friend of mine grew up the same way although being a white person in Kenya, she was very aware of her skin privilege.
We never had any racial issues at first but being to long in America does get to you in various ways I guess. In appearance, she went beyond the American standard of beauty. She could have been a model.
Personally I am never taken up by people’s appearances. Even in my native country where women are advised not to be good friends with beautiful women, I went against that rule. The most beautiful girls were always my friends. I appreciated their beauty as long as they did not get conceited or misused it.
My Norwegian friend had that African value of not taking her beauty seriously but being in LA took its toll on her personality. She also started noticing her skin privilege and before long I became the African friend and later on the mammy. We got special treatment where ever we went, the same places that would treat me suspiciously when I was by my self.
I don’t completely blame her change on the new society because I am not that familiar with Norwegian culture as it relates to blacks. Naturally I was disgusted and started distancing myself. She had become so comfortable in her princess role and expected me to be around to pick up after her. I felt used and abused. The last straw was when she dropped the N word when she saw some AA kids. That was it, end of friendship.

I recently met a wonderful AA single mum female of my age. We met in one of my classes and we became study mates. Very nice person with out any of the negative stereotypes associated with black women (and I do carry some). We worked together through the class and have mutual respect for each other. For once I knew I had met someone I could call a friend. This friendship too has met with its own challenge, which is our own personal outlook on how to over come those things that are meant to keep us down ie the system
Now I came to America all the way from my village so I could get a better life for me and my children (biological or not). Right now, I don’t care for obstacles, whether systematic or those with in my own head. There are children I know that will be better off once I survive and succeed in getting part of the American dream. In other words, being in America is not about me. Its about a community of people I care about deeply.

Back to my friend, this person started off strong in the math class, but when her first failure popped up, she never recovered despite the fact that she was very capable. I know this for a fact because we studied together and a lot of what I applied in our math tests were her own corrections of my errors. In the end I got the better grade, not because I am smarter than her but because I am more focused on what it is I want and not paying attention to the naysayers and believe me I could fill a country with them. I told her that she needs most of all to work on her confidence and kill some girly dreams like marrying a rich man. At the end of the semester her confidence was so battered that I feel she has given up. Now this is the tricky part, I have often heard that one should surround them selves with people that can make them better. I now believe that advice. My Norwegian friend was an airhead and was sucking the life out of me. The last thing I need is someone with enormous insecurities that I have to continuously emotionally support despite the fact that they have millions of opportunities staring at them yet are still reluctant to see them. That puts me in a disadvantaged position once again and though I like this woman, I am not going to play the enabler to her self destructive ways.

And once again I am left wondering if friendship the Western way is possible for me and if all these people calling themselves BFFs are genuine friends.