How far would you go to save a friendship?
After some back and forth that included a spontaneous trip to Manila, it finally works out: I’d meet up with my Burmese friend in Bangkok – as a compromise between Yangon and Singapore, where I’m staying for a couple of weeks. We met two years ago at a beach party in Singapore and subsequently got closer through Facebook – thanks to his insomnia and the fact that I, living in Switzerland, was the only one online due to the time difference.
For a while we had a quite intense friendship – despite our age difference of seven years and totally different cultural backgrounds. We wrote for hours and skyped at times. But during the last couple of months we hardly talked or wrote anymore and whenever I contacted him because of a possible reunion, he didn’t seem very interested and replied only irregularly.
Most people would have gotten the clue and moved on, but I hold onto people who used to be dear to me for a long time before accepting that I have to let them go. This sweet taste of nostalgia.. So I’ve kept trying to organise a meet up even though it seemed like he didn’t care. Foolish me, but at least I told myself that I’ll give up on our friendship if we don’t manage to meet up this year. I’m done chasing up people who don’t care.
The reunion in Bangkok is literally a last-minute thing and I don’t know what to expect – I just know that we’ll lose touch if we don’t see each other again while I am in Asia. The last couple of months have come down to that.
Bangkok receives me with streams of rain, my flight is delayed and at the immigration I have to copy the hotel name of the guy behind me to fill the mandatory piece of information because I didn’t book anything. Not the best start. I just hope that I wouldn’t have to look for Kevin, my friend, for too long.
He finds me before I get through the control. I see him standing there, a huge backpack shouldered, and can’t believe it has actually worked out. He’s come to Bangkok because of me, he cares, no matter how often he ignored my messages and seemed as if he didn’t.
A hearty hug, followed by a bit of a reserved, cautious friendliness from my side that soon dissolves. He makes jokes, teases me about selling me to an old Thai dude and it’s as if the months of distance between us have never existed. I didn’t dare to imagine that it would go so well.
Bangkok intimidates me. I’m a small girl with bright blue-green hair, curious eyes and a camera around my neck. I stare at things and people for too long and attract attention I don’t want to get. I stick with Kevin, he’s the only familiar thing in this unfamiliar place. Safety.
We arrive at the hotel and get a room together to spare my tight budget. We enter the room and a single queen-sized bed laughs at us. Without hesitation, we go back to the reception to ask for a room with two single beds. People assume we’re a couple, but our friendship is strong enough that we know exactly that we’re nothing more than friends and don’t feel uncomfortable because of the others.
The familiarity slowly comes back while we eat sticky rice with mango and street food and share coconut water from a fresh coconut. With my camera in the hand I walk at his side and sometimes almost get lost because my eyes spot an interesting subject and I stop mid-pace without letting him know. I’m glad he isn’t bothered by my slow pace.
We roam through shopping centers that make me feel like in Europe, walk amidst streams of people with facial features similar to mine, features I’ve gotten used to see during the last couple of weeks. We talk about businesses and dreams and he tells me about Burmese women who study but want to marry a guy that can provide for them and about how important money and prestige is in his social circle. I’m happy that I’m just a rather simple girl with big dreams who doesn’t have to care about reputations or wealth.
Since I look Western and Kevin like a Thai, he handles all the bargaining with the tuk tuk or taxi drivers. I don’t feel comfortable being in a country where I don’t speak the language because I like to be able to take care of myself, but it’s good to have someone around who is in charge so I can relax a bit – however, my stomach tightens when we pass near the place where the bomb detonated just two weeks ago. You never know when you wake up for the last time.
Then there are tuk tuk rides and conversations about a broken heart. I don’t understand. How can someone treat a person like him that badly? How can you let someone else treat you so badly? Where’s the self-respect that tells you that you deserve better? I don’t understand how people can love someone who’s bad for them. But then, I used to be in an unhealthy relationship as well, so I got a taste of these emotions that swallow you up.
“I talk so much when I’m with you. With her, I hardly get the chance to speak. She talks all the time and I have to listen.”
Night time, Chinatown. After dinner and the best mango smoothie I’ve ever tasted, I’m together with a small group of Burmese, two of them business owners, all at least seven years older than me – and I wonder how the hell I got here. The only thing we have in common is Kevin and I’m amazed how knowing him has led me to this place with those people I otherwise never would have met.
Then I realise with how much ease they navigate through Bangkok, they’re all so familiar with this region because they’ve grown up in South East Asia while I was cut off from this part of my heritage. It fills me with sorrow. I’m the foreigner even though I belong, at least a bit.
His friend drinks too much Japanese whiskey on the rocks and heaves beside me in the car. I soothingly touch his shoulder. I know too well how it feels like to be in his position.
(to be continued)