It's never too late to start nurturing the gift of friendship

Kelly Yang says a story about a great friendship has inspired her to pay more attention to deepening ties outside the family

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2015, 10:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2015, 10:52am

Two weeks ago, I came across the most extraordinary essay by Matthew Teague in Esquire magazine. Teague's wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer at the age of 34. The cancer was everywhere; "like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen," he wrote. He and his wife have two little girls. To help him get through this devastating situation, Teague's best friend quit his job and moved in.

The first thing I thought after reading this extraordinary story was, "Wow, that's an amazing friend." That was followed by: I don't have a friend like that.

Ten years of being out here in Hong Kong will do that to a person. I've missed more weddings, baby showers and reunions of friends back home in the United States than I can count.

And while I do have friends in Hong Kong, here, we are tied together by geography, rather than mutual interests.

These days, hanging out with friends in Hong Kong consists of three or four people slumped on the couch or at a restaurant table, all checking their iPhones. Any talking that gets done takes place over WhatsApp and usually involves a multitude of emoticons. Why articulate your feelings when you can just slap on a smiley icon?

Not that any of that bothered me. But when I read Teague's article, suddenly, I got a gnawing feeling in my gut, a worry that if I didn't start making time for friends - real time, not just WhatsApp time - it was going to be too late for me.

To my surprise, when I showed my teenage students the article, many did not share this fear. I asked them how many of them, if they knew for sure they could end up with a friend like Teague's - someone who really steps up for you - would put the time and energy into cultivating that friendship. Very few people raised their hands and the ones who did quickly yanked them back down.

"Friendships are overrated," the kids informed me. They said very matter-of-factly that the chances of them ever needing such a level of emotional support was low. One even asked, "Is this friend really smart or something? Is he rich?" Apparently all that factored into their decision.

I stared at them in disbelief. What had happened to them? I remember being a teenager once. My friends meant so much to me. They're what got me through some of the hardest times of my life.

Interestingly, a study recently found that rats also treasure friendships. When rats were given a choice between saving another rat who was drowning and a piece of chocolate, they chose to help the rat.

That these pesky little critters could be so compassionate gives me hope. I'm confident that if rats can do it, so can we. It's going to take the reshuffling of our priorities and putting down our phones, but it can happen.

I hope to follow in the kind rat's footsteps, starting this summer, relaxing with friends as I take in the beach and the sun.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.