Ode to the friends I cannot see and the powers of social media.
On a warm Sunday afternoon, I lay, nestled in bed in my summer apartment in Washington D.C., scrolling through Uber Eats trying to decide what I want for dinner. “What did you get for lunch?” I asked my empty bedroom. A slightly staticky voice came out of my phone.
“Pad Thai,” said Kavin, my best friend, who was waiting for her lunch delivery in Seattle. “Do you think we’ll still be on the phone when you end up eating dinner?”
“Obviously,” I said, while absentmindedly comparing delivery prices. “I’m not eating alone.”
I must tell you that I do have friends. I’m just not usually with them. I had the privilege of growing up in different countries—seven years in Wimbledon, six in Miami, three in Bangalore, five in Washington, and now I’m on my second (official) year in Chennai. And I’m grateful! I’ve been to more schools than I can count, adjusted my accent so many times that I am now an expert at code-switching, and I’ve met the most extraordinary variety of people. But being a third-culture kid also means you have to be okay with uprooting your life whenever your dad’s boss decides it’s time to relocate. It means you have to make peace with the fact that you’ll probably always be plagued by an identity crisis. But most painful of all, it means you have to accept that you probably won’t see the people you’ve developed deep friendships with, for a few years.
I first experienced this pain in third grade, when I found out I was leaving the U.K. I remember when I broke the news to my best friend, Hermione. It was picture day and we were sitting on the floor of the assembly hall, wearing navy blue jumpers and matching pleated skirts, fiddling with our stockings and light-blue hair bands . I told her I had to move to a place in America called Florida, and it was going to be hot and that I didn’t want to go because I didn’t know anything, Florida. . Hermione simply replied, “That’s okay. The world’s richest man lives in America, you know.” It didn’t make any sense but somehow it comforted me, as though Warren Buffet (or whoever the richest man was at that time) was going to greet me at the airport and attend my Barbie’s tea parties. The night after my family’s farewell party, I cried for hours on my bare mattress, watching my parents frantically box up our home.
A few years later, I created a Facebook account. As I excitedly added practically every student from South Miami Middle School, I suddenly paused. In the search bar I typed: h-e-r-m-i-o-n-e p-e-a-c-e. I clicked the first result and blinked, bedazzled by Zuckerberg’s power. I was staring at my first best friend, who now had long hair, and wore thick black eyeliner, but had the same smile, and, based on her “liked pages,” the same interests as me. Awkwardly, I looked at my dorky, about-to-start-puberty profile picture, prayed she would remember me, and sent her a friend request. Within a week, I was reconnecting, not just with her, but several other former classmates. A few years ago, I had a layover in Heathrow Airport, and I posted a picture on my Instagram story of some idle planes. Ten minutes later, I had a message. “Are you in London? Can we meet up?” I sadly replied I was waiting to catch a connecting flight. “Next time then,” she said. I haven’t seen her since I was seven, yet, she still cared. There was something in our friendship that made it last.
With time, you learn that not every friendship has that special something. It’s not easy to maintain a friendship over several years, across time zones, not knowing when, or if, you’ll ever see that person again. When I left Miami, my friends promised they would keep in touch. “We’ll Skype every day!” we said to each other, naively. I was only 13, after all. But after the first year, the conversations got shorter, the responses took longer to come in, and I accepted that we were all in different parts of life. They had started high school, and I was in a boarding school in India, where social media was blocked and our laptops had to be turned in at 10pm. Not exactly conducive to maintaining friendships with people on the other side of the world. Things changed, and we grew up. I met my new best friends, one of them being Kavin, a fellow third-culture kid and, if we want to get mushy about it, my other half.
Since I was the one constantly leaving friend groups, I always assumed people would probably just forget about me. I imagine them hanging out and saying, “Hey, remember Sonikka?” Someone wouldn’t remember. “That Indian girl!” although I hardly use my nationality to identify myself. But when I told my middle school friends that I was visiting Miami for spring break my sophomore year, everyone wanted to see me.
“I’ve waited so long for this!” said Daisy, who became my best friend after I laughed hysterically at a joke she made on the first day of sixth grade. When I got out of the Uber in front of her building, she, and my other friend Daniella, screamed out “so-NEE-ka!” before smothering me in hugs. In college, I had Americanised the pronunciation of my name to san-i-ca (like Monica with an ‘s’), dramatically different from how I apparently used to say my name. As we made our way to the beach, chattering away, it stood as an odd testament to the life-changes friendships can withstand.
Tonight, I plan to Facetime my best friend from college, Lauren. It’s Wednesday, which means she’ll probably be folding laundry while I do my night-time skincare routine. Last time we spoke (which was really just a few days ago), I told her I had stopped using retinol for a week and my cystic acne was already flaring up again, pointing my camera uncomfortably close to the large, swollen pustules on my cheek. “Girl, bye!” she exclaimed, before pointing her own camera at her cheek. “How do we keep getting the same acne in the same spots at the same time?” It’s a sisterhood of the travelling pimple type thing.
We reminisce about college life, and curse ourselves for complaining about it so much when we were living it. One day she told me she’s “started a savings account for [her] trip to India. If I put $5 in it every day, I can probably visit you once your course ends in May.” Tears welled up in my eyes. I’ve loved all the friends I’ve made over the course of life, but no one had ever tried to come see me (realistically because we were children, but still).
“Lauren, I’m going to cry.”
“Why?” she chuckled. “How long am I supposed to go without seeing my best friend?”
Sonikka is a freelance journalist based in India. As a third culture kid, Sonikka found comfort in the connectivity the news gave her to people from various backgrounds and cultures. After working in U.S. political media, she moved to India, where she developed a passion for climate change and environmental justice, and arts and culture.