Stifled by my parents throughout my childhood from creating an online identity, I took matters into my own hands junior year of high school when I created my own Facebook page. Not only was I introduced to a virtual social environment that somehow evaded the confines of the typical high school stereotypes, but I finally was able to contribute to lengthy discussions among friends on the implications of a crush liking your status.
So when I came to Berkeley from Arizona my freshman year, I started by sending friend requests to everyone I came in contact with during CalSO, in the residence halls, in class and from anywhere else I went. All of a sudden, I felt like I knew everyone. I’d go to exchanges at my fraternity, sorority invites in the city and late nights at Zete and not have any issues finding many people I knew. I fist-bumped dozens of people between classes, and Berkeley gradually began to feel like home. Furthermore, I soon became known for my Red Sox cap and the Razor scooter I took to class. And it wasn’t just a sense of fulfillment but a quantifiable achievement: I knew exactly how many friends I was making. In my head, I was becoming the affable, outgoing person that I set out to be.
Then junior year came around, and everyone’s eagerness to make friends seemed to stall. College all of a sudden felt cliquey. That’s not to say I felt left out: My social interactions revolved around life in my fraternity and with the football team, where I had begun to work the previous spring.
Instead of attending a new friend’s housewarming party, I would attend this weekend’s party at my own house, regardless of how similar it was to the previous weekend’s event. Many people began to work longer hours at jobs or internships, and busy schedules made time for meeting new people nearly nonexistent.
During my second semester of junior year, I went abroad for eight months. I wound up voyaging around the Middle East a bit, and one night I found myself wandering the streets of Amman, Jordan. Desperate to practice my incredibly basic knowledge of Arabic, I ventured out of the hostel over to a small book stand on the other side of the street. Thumbing through an Arabic edition of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” I was shocked when I felt my arm suddenly in the vise grip of a wizened, jowly shopkeeper. He sat me down in a chair outside the bookstore and fetched a styrofoam cup of Lipton green tea for me. Then the old man just began to talk to me in Arabic, somehow confusing my holding of an Arabic book for a grasp of the language itself.
Soon after he starting speaking, a stout man in a well-cut suit approached me and introduced himself as Karim. When I asked Karim if he could translate what the shopkeeper had just said, he explained that the old man, named Mohammed, was telling me the history of his family and his life in Jordan. Without even asking Mohammed for clarifying details, Karim dove into Mohammed’s life story, from his parents’ Bedouin heritage and their exile from British Palestine to the birth of Mohammed’s two children and Mohammed’s struggles with a rapidly urbanizing Amman. Karim, who turned out to be Mohammed’s best friend from childhood, also told me his own life story about also growing up in Bedouin camps, working as a bank janitor as a child, eventually running his own bank in Britain and then moving back to Amman. Karim told me that every day after work, due to Mohammed’s refusal to use a cellphone, he walks by the bookstore so that the two friends can drink tea and talk for a couple of hours as the sun sets.
He then asked me about my own family history and acted as a translator for Mohammed. I told them about how my ancestors were forced out of their home country as well, how my great-grandfather worked in the copper mines of Arizona, how my grandparents and my dad grew up on cotton farms and why I was interested in the Middle East. We connected over our families’ shared history of farming in arid climates, and we discussed what their hopes and fears are for young people who are growing up farther away from pastoral cultures today.
By the time we said our goodbyes to one another ( because the tea they pumped me full of was about to overtake my bladder) I was hit with an acute sense of isolation. Halfway around the world and months away from going back to the United States, I began to wonder about whether I had friends who knew me so well that they would be able to talk at length about me in a second language without prompting or assistance. What bugged me freshman year was that I wasn’t meeting nearly as many people as I wanted. But what hit me junior year was that I lacked a balance between the breadth and the depth of my friendships. There I was, with a thousand friends on Facebook, yet I only could recall more than a name, hometown and year for a few dozen of them.
When I went back to the hostel to get Wi-Fi, I reflexively did a quick check of social media. What I realized is that, by and large, I only knew as much about people as they were willing to share online. I wasn’t friends with people, but with profiles. I had spent my first three years of college trying to meet people, but I hadn’t spent much time trying to get close with them. When was the last time I helped a friend through a difficult family situation or a breakup or the death of a loved one? It even took me three years to figure out one of my good friends is an only child.
It can be awkward to explore personal experiences. There is really no right moment to bring them up. But that is where Mohammed taught me something: I can’t wait for those situations. I must create them. Mohammed probably didn’t pick the best moment to startle some American student, but he showed me that I won’t become more comfortable with my friends if I never choose moments to share uncomfortable stories and expose myself to discomforting truths. The language Mohammed used didn’t matter — his lesson spoke for itself.
Tucker Ring is a contributor to The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]