Places and the (im)possibilities of friendship

Occasionally, I’d receive “come home frendo” and other similar messages on my Facebook wall or inbox.  The “home” referred to in these messages is South Africa, not the US. Though I’ve been back for research purposes, it’s almost been three years since I left South Africa. Friendship isn’t something that I take for granted, but it’s also not something that I’ve had to give much thoughts to, especially when I move to a new place. Certainly, I do distinguish between friends and acquaintances. And, I’ve been blessed with friends wherever I’ve lived. I’ve tended to meet them in my first year, not too long after my arrival at a place. The exception to this pattern is Guangzhou, China.

Why did I begin to be concerned with the ways in which friendships are formed and become a fact? The answer is in Guangzhou and the people I’ve met in this South China city. After my first year (2013) in this city, not only did I not have one (Chinese, not necessarily local) person who I could refer to as a friend, but those who qualified as acquaintances were also scarce. How was this even imaginable in a city of 8.525 million and country of just over one billion people when South Africa’s overall population is just shy of 53 million?

From my point of view, an acquaintance is a person I know, but not well. We’d exchange pleasantries or have casual conversations. These exchanges would carry on over different lengths of time, which distinguish acquaintances from strangers. In my first year, those who fit this description consisted mostly of my colleagues at the university (I’m excluding expats in this discussion). Outside of that context, it was challenging to strike up conversations with people. Even a “good morning” greeting to a random person in the streets was (and still is) met with silence and, sometimes, suspicion. In South Africa, it was the opposite. My acquaintances in South Africa have invited me to their houses for braais (barbecues) or other meals. Indeed, I’ve received invitations for meals from acquaintances in China as well, but always at restaurants – never at their places of residence. One of the things I was curious about my first year in China was (really) how a Chinese person’s house looks like on the inside. That curiosity would only be settled during my second year in Guangzhou, when I had a Chinese friend or two and they invited me to their apartments.

Acquaintances often do become friends if it’s sustained for a  period of time, making the line between the two a slightly blurry. Definitely, we all define things differently, so I can only say that, for me, friends entail emotional work that’s not necessarily required of acquaintances. There is mutual care and understanding, but also a sense of loyalty, that we have one others backs, especially in tough situations (like a bad breakup, when we need a shoulder to cry on). We can talk about matters that we’re passionate about or trouble us. We share about life. There is a deeper level of intimacy not found with acquaintances.

In South Africa, I did have friends my first year there, specifically Pretoria and Johannesburg. When I moved to the Eastern Cape a few years later, I also made friends in my first year. In both instances, I contacted lgbt organizations that I found from online searches. They either put me in touch with people they knew or reached out to me themselves. Additionally, I became friends with the person’s whose office I “squatted” in when I first arrived in Pretoria. A friend of friends in Santa Barbara had offered me a place to stay and to use the resources at the University of South Africa, but there was no office space for me. When the person whose office I used returned from abroad, she welcomed me. And, after hearing that I was interested in watching her perform her poetry (“spoken words”), she’d invite me to her performances. Actually, she did more than that; she’d also drive me to those venues. There was also Phindi, who I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog. Phindi’s a dear friend’s friend, so she immediately became “family.” The time when I lived in Pretoria, whenever I’d visit Joburg, I’d stay at Phindi’s apartment. Small as it was (two bedrooms and one bathroom and a living room), that place would accommodate four to five or six of us sometimes.

I’m still uncertain what I had expected when I first arrived in Guangzhou. But, I certainly know that I didn’t expect people (local or from other cities and provinces) to be unfriendly and guarded. I’ve lived in Beijing many years ago (late 1990s), and if I recall correctly, greeting someone with a smile reciprocated a smile. That was another time. And, perhaps, another place? After getting to know more acquaintances and talking to taxi drivers, they’ve shared their theories about why people in Guangzhou and the local people of this city, in particular, are the way that I’ve described above. The predominant theory is that Guangzhou has received too many internal migrants and foreigners over the years, and the local people are tired of being squeezed out. They blame internal migrants for the gradual lost of their language, culture, as well as jobs (similar to what Americans say about Mexicans). Moreover, internal migrants are said to have brought crimes with them. Locals who are generous have fallen pray to trickeries. The latter also accounts for their defensive persona. In short, Guangzhou became a dangerous city (a Chinese journalist friend blames this on government censorship that slowly reduced journalists to reporting only on local news, thus, making local situations seem more exaggerated than they really were), causing people to distrust others. Indeed, some have pointed out that the people in Guangzhou have become too materialistic. Often what this means is that the (local) people in this city would only give another person time if there’s benefit to be gained. Benefits didn’t always have to be monetary, but could include connections that’d augment an individual’s social capital.

These explanations suggest that the external environment could dramatically change a person’s innate characteristics, including moral values. It’s like saying: the people are not to be blamed (and can’t be held accountable) for their attitudes towards and treatment of outsider people. It’s a depressing statement, actually, when people’s agency are rendered irrelevant. The majority of my friends in South Africa are Black South Africans, who were once dispossessed of all properties, including their own selves/bodies, when the country was ruled by a white minority. Until after 1994, Black South Africans were excluded from citizenship in a country that their ancestors have lived (0r migrated to) and where they were born. That they could maintain an idea of how humanity should be – in spite continual violence in post-apartheid society – makes Guangzhou unintelligible to me.

Obviously, I have a difficult time accepting the explanations that have been given because of my experiences (sense of inclusion) in South Africa. Moreover, they don’t even account for historical factors that could have shaped the way the local people of Guangzhou are today. No one has yet alluded to anything about it being a post-colonial society that’s still trying to work out its past as a port city that had been dominated by foreign (European, to be precise) powers, especially the people’s struggle with their own identity, their identity vis-a-vis other Chinese on the mainland as well as overseas (including Hong Kong), and in relation to foreigners. Guangzhou has been an global city for a long time (even before the arrival of the Europeans), and it has been punished for its proximity to the world beyond the seas. I suspect that pride of place, but also a degree of self-loathing have shaped the local people’s perceptions and treatments of those they’ve imagined as outsider people.

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