Frequently, people claim that there are universal things in this world. Emotions, feelings, friendship or love. But is that true? In university I learned about abstract things that exist everywhere,but are practiced in a different way. I am confused, because if something abstract like love gets a new name (or even three different words like here: Muhabit, piar, ishq) and at the same time is practiced in a different way, is it even comparable? Isn’t already the translation of the word a mistake, because it is not the same emotion, but practiced in a new, other way? I know, that this might sound confusing, but I am willing to give an example.
Friendship is one of these supposedly universal things. It is one of the big issues in our world, it moves people, it is goal and engine of our actions and we claim to have a good idea about what friendship is. Books and films have dealt with this topic, we listen to tales of friendship in any place on the earth, between different people, between animals, and even between humans and animals and we are able to feel it. Broken trust, disappointment and betrayal enrage us and we are delighted to see the protagonists find to each other in the end. There are also ups and downs in real-life friendships. Sometimes they emerge from the circumstances. Work, school and life itself can put friends on the proof. Good friendships, however, can resist these circumstances. As long as the expectations do not vary.
To exemplify this, I am again going abroad. I go to a village, deep into the Indian Punjab. The weather is hazy. The winter fog meets the smoke from the fields, where farmers burn the leftovers of the harvest, even though it has been prohibited by the government. But we are in India, and even if there are many complainants, there is no judge. The village is as rural Indian, as one can imagine. Women are collecting cow-dung by hand, to dry them and later use them to light fires. A few men are lovelessly guiding their cows through the sometimes trampled, sometimes plastered roads between clay and brick houses. It is calm here, finally, and just the noises of some animals break the silence every now and then.
I meet my host. He is a friend of a friend, who is also with us. We go to his home, and drink the obligatory glass of water as we are welcomed. I have found out by now, that Indians use to drink this glass of water as fast as possible. I haven’t found out, why. After a short time, we drink the obligatory tea for guests, who stay longer than five minutes. There is a lot of talk. On Hindi, English, Henglish, with hands and feet and visit a marriage in the village. Even though I don't know the groom, as he is my friend's friend, I am unwillingly the star at the wedding. The cameras love me. I am stuffed with delicious, fresh foot until my “Bas, bas” (=”enough, enough”) is finally taken serious after the third serve. We give our best wishes to the groom and walk through the village. My host is all around me and wants to explain me everything. Many things, which I already know and actually I would love to enjoy the quietness here. Additionally, I do not enjoy taking the thirty-fifth selfie with people who have just been introduced to me and just want to introduce me as their new friend on social media.
But I still do not want to be a bad person and so I hide behind the smiling mask of the grateful guest, even though the ongoing pampering becomes more and more annoying. And it reaches its peak the next morning. After I have not been left alone a single second, the (indeed already clean) toilet hut has been cleaned for me, so I could use it for my morning procedures. My host waits for me right in front of the (not at all soundproof) door, to serve me as a human water tap, as soon as I have finished my business. The fresh cold water runs over my hands, which I just used to clean my bum, while I look into his smiling face. After this procedure, we go for a morning walk. Nils, the grateful guest smiles. He is trained in those situation, has lived abroad a while and is usually relaxed.
This picture is taken another day, but it might give you a good idea about the fog...
This morning again is very hazy, the fog hurts a bit in the eyes. A sign, that the fields are still burning. My host is a Yoga-teacher and insisted to teach me a few lessons. I am not at all a Yoga-Ayurveda tourist, but why not try to learns something new, far from any commercial interest. So we are walking through the fog. I enjoy the calmness, I am a bit worried, where we are going. We left my friend sleeping in the hut. I am again in the hands of a stranger. Actually today, I feel not annoyed anymore, my host is kind, we have interesting conversation about life, the obligatory girlfriend questions are answered (do you have a wife? No. Girlfriend? No.). Every now and then we see some figures in the fog. A few of them stop, when my host calls them to introduce me, a few just walk on. All friends and Yoga-students, I am told. Then I get my first Yoga lesson, but that is a different topic. Just a short note: I am very good in breathing, but not flexible at all. Still, I enjoyed.
It was better than expected, I feel refreshed on the way back. I am starting to build some connection to my host, when it suddenly happened. Out of nowhere appears the question: “I really like you much, Nils, very much. I hope we can be very good friends?” The words blur in the fog, their meaning stays hidden in the shadows. And then my eyes still burn. How much do you like me, did you say? I remember our talk earlier. Something about European women, that seemed to be his interest. But when sexuality cannot be enjoyed in hetero-constellations, due to cultural circumstances, it occasionally is substituted with same-sex partners.
However, I decide that I should not worry too much. Indians are very expressive in their friendship and some will tell you after a few hours after you departed, how much they miss you. Friends will publicly hold hands and I often get a little bit nervous, when the hand of my friend lasts a bit too long on my upper thigh. I know these things, so I decide that I do not have to keep safe distance to signal my disinterest. But do I really not have to keep safe distance? Is such a declaration of friendship not equal to a declaration of love? Which obligations are associated with such a friendship, when it has been expressed in such intense emotions? Can I even deny it after I have shamelessly milked the hospitality of my hosts? Can I just sit the whole situation out? That is one of my favourite techniques, when I am confronted with new and unknown concepts. As long as I don’t understand things, I wait. A typically German model.
Germans make friends as a sideline. We do not become friends through handshake or facebook, but through a natural process of consolidation. Friendship comes creepingly through understanding. We avoid to emphasize our friendship in front of each other. The question “Can we become friends?” already sounds ridiculous and absurd. If two people have forged a band of affection, it usually consists of a common experience, which expresses itself in the affection of the partners. If words are needed, then something seems wrong, because friendship draws its energy from the mutual understanding and trust. Especially if one of the persons has to ask “Can we be friends?”, some kind of hierarchy emerges. The asking person seems to literally beg for friendship, as if it was a present of the asked person, given down with favour to the other. I do not understand you, but I find you so exceptional that I have to be your friend. Maybe that is understandable in the case of children, who first have to learn social rules to understand each others behaviour. But not for grownups in my cultural space. I actually thought of starting to like my new Yoga-teacher, until this hierarchy pressure came up. It i poison for a friendship on eye-level. So, to come back to the problem, is the Indian “Dosti” really equal to “friendship?” Or is this just a very special case, as many of my friends in India have the same ideas about friendship I do? Or is it maybe just about having a white friend as a status symbol? Even here, Colonialism left its traces.
This is where my insecurity about one simple question comes from. “I hope we can be friends?” Actually, it can be a legitimate question, because we are like kids. Both are insecure in how to deal with the concept of friendship of the other. Nils, the grateful guest and understanding anthropologist is on the run. After the next inquiry he answers: “Of course we can be friends.” We walk home. Later I will leave the village with one more friend on this planet. Arriving at home, I watch my phone. A message from my new friend: “Nils, post our selfie from the morning walk on facebook.” He also liked all of my pictures. I decide to be German and first do nothing and just sit it out. The fog outside has cleared up, but still my eyes are burning a bit.