In this compelling personal essay, Shamini Sriskandarajah recounts a year of trying to connect with friends over text, email, phone and post; of having to explain racism to one white friend and denounce violent sexism to another.
I’m always surprised when I have a crying fit during a disagreement with one of my sweetest friends. Last year it was a face-to-face with The Nicest Man in Canada, arguing about a man’s sexual violence against a woman in the film Watchmen. I’d assumed my friend was as feminist as he was liberal, yet he came down on the side of the male gaze. This year it’s a London girl-friend on the phone, and a conversation about shielding during the pandemic that escalates into a wrangle about race.
I was dreading our next chat because during the first lockdown she, like another therapist I know, has been trying to fix me. Both of them normally work with emotions rather than behaviour, but lockdown seems to be screwing up their normal.
“It’s unhealthy to stay indoors all of the time!” Even though that’s what shielding is.
“Go for a walk in the park!” With the dog walkers (none of whom are Asian), who never give a little, always expecting me to move out of their way. Try playing White Patriarchy Chicken as an Asian woman. You’ll add an extra five hundred metres to your daily walk.
During this call, I tell my friend it’s impossible for someone who hasn’t been shielding for a quarter of the year to know how petrifying it is to go outside for the first time. How shielders can’t just get over it, despite the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England urging shielders to do exactly that and telling them to start commuting to work again.
I explain to my friend that it’s particularly hard as an Asian person. Before the Black Lives Matter protests and backlash, there was racism against East Asian people because of the coronavirus. Racism towards anyone not-white after the EU referendum.
“Where’s the evidence?”
I’m speechless. Is she for real?
“You think it’s more racist now? Maybe in America, but not here. Are you watching too much news? Too much social media?”
Am I crazy for reading the paper or watching videos of Black and Asian people being abused? Don’t normal people follow the news as well?
I explain that when lockdown started, we wanted to take my disabled sister out for a drive, but worried we’d more likely be stopped by the police.
“Have you ever been stopped and searched?”
“We didn’t go out during lockdown, so we were never stopped.”
“Yes, but have you – ”
I repeat myself. I know what she’s trying to say: If I’ve never been stopped and searched, why would it happen now? This it never happened to me, so it never happens full stop lunacy is why there are people refusing to wear masks or socially-distance because no one they know personally has had Covid-19, therefore Covid-19 doesn’t exist.
One of the most frustrating things if you’re in a group that experiences inequality and discrimination is the irrelevant “me too” or “all people” counter-argument from someone in a group which, usually, doesn’t experience the same problem.
It happens now. She offsets my bad experience with a white person in a supermarket (when I am brown) with her own bad experience as a white person with another white person on the street. “See, it happens to me, it happens to everyone.” It’s nothing to do with colour, she’s telling me, it’s just crappy people being crappy.
If only it were that simple. It isn’t. My experience is culturally-specific; hers is universal.
I’m sobbing within minutes. It comes as a bit of a surprise to me, but a real shock to her.
“I’ve never heard you so upset. Is this something new?”
No, it’s not new. We’ve just never had a conversation about her white privilege and my brown burden. I want to hang up but I don’t want her to feel like I’m slamming the phone down.
“I’ve had conversations about race but I’ve never cried about it before. I’ve never had someone deny and challenge everything I’m saying.”
“I’m not challenging you…”
I know she’s upset. I don’t want to hurt her. But her shock versus my despair – who gets the last word here?
The next day there are texts back and forth. She says she didn’t mean to question my experience of racism and tells me I found her clumsy remark insensitive. I tell her it wasn’t just one remark – it was a whole conversation in which she was questioning me, giving me her examples to somehow disprove mine.
I don’t want to be a femmesplainer, but I want her to know that I’m not mad, I’m not making this all up – there is evidence out there. I just didn’t want to launch into a bibliography during what I thought was a casual phone call with a good friend. I also resent the burden of having to educate other people.
In the end I send her a link to an article by Afua Hirsh, and recommend books by Nikesh Shukla and Reni Eddi-Lodge for starters. I worry I’ll be met with silence, even though that’s what she asked for on the phone: evidence.
She says it would be a shame to throw a friendship away. I am a little hurt – does it sound like that’s what I’m doing? Surely if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t be bothering to engage with her now; I would have just ghosted her. Another friend, the husband of the Nicest Man in Canada, told me that I’m a cat in my affections and not a dog. “You make people feel special, then you walk away.” He’s right, I do. Not with everyone though, and that’s the point. I don’t intend to do this now.
I tell her I’m not throwing our friendship away. I tell her how much she means to me – and she really does. I tell her I realise it was a shock to her on the phone and she was scrambling because she didn’t know what to say.
We finish our text conversation nicely, with smiley emojis and kisses.
Another good friend, also white, has said some screamingly dodgy things about my Asianness, but usually to my face. Although I’ll correct her in the moment and there will be some awkwardness in the minutes that follow, her grey-area racist comments haven’t blown up into a disagreement in the same way as my friend on the phone. Why is that? I also had a boss several years ago who took after Michael Scott from The Office in his desire to be adored by and matey with his team, but said some shockingly offensive and white privileged things to me. What was I going to do? Run to Human Resources and officially complain about the loudest manager in the office? I’ve hung on to my hurt and anger at their comments.
Is that why I suddenly cry when I am talking to the therapist friend on the phone at the end of the first lockdown – is it a build-up of every time I have wanted to break away from the stereotype of the quiet, reliable Asian woman and explode at a supposedly liberal, anti-racist white friend when they said something far from liberal and anti-racist?
Two months pass. Then three. This isn’t that unusual – somehow, the start of lockdown went slowly and I was checking in on friends or they were checking in on me regularly. But the summer seemed to go by in a flash and before I know it, I have flagged emails that I need to reply to from months ago, made a mental list of friends I haven’t been in touch with for a quarter, a third, nearly half of the year. I have an excuse – it’s exhausting and stressful being a full-time carer to someone with severe learning disabilities – but that doesn’t ease the guilt and the worry that by not being on the ball, I will lose friends. I know I’m often the one who makes the effort to keep in touch, so what happens if I don’t make the effort? Or worse, if I don’t respond when someone else has made the effort?
I can see now that there are some friendships that thrive on the phone or by texts or emails, and others that struggle. One of my best friends and I live a plane ride apart, so we have always relied on phone calls. We talk once a month during the first lockdown and our chats are always two and a half hours. The length of a film. Our longest phone chat was four hours, several years ago. Now we’re older, we have to end our long conversations sooner than that because eventually one of us needs the toilet.
There are other friendships that are usually face-to-face, but lockdown has brought out a closeness and tenderness that wasn’t as tangible when we used to physically meet up. One group used to gather a few times a year, coming together from four of London’s thirty-two boroughs to the fast-paced, ram-packed centre, where we would chat noisily over food and drink. Now there are silly group chats with memes and videos to cheer everyone up, serious conversations about poorly family members, frustration that the government’s priority food delivery system for “extremely vulnerable” people is taking months to reach some of those who need it. The banter we enjoyed in person seems to translate to WhatsApp messages. I don’t talk to any of them on the phone, apart from the one friend in our group who has always preferred phoning to texting. A hospital doctor, she is also the one woman in our group who doesn’t have the option of working from home. And although we’re waiting, like so many friends, for the time we can safely get trains and tubes across London and meet in a crowded restaurant again, it doesn’t feel like our friendship is suffering while we wait. Instead, our friendship has come of age.
I didn’t used to like texting that much. I would get particularly tired of teenage-style short texts back and forth, which are presumably meant to simulate a real conversation, but which I think would be better served by a phone call. The fact that many of the friends I enjoy talking to don’t seem to want to speak on the phone used to make me ache with loneliness.
And because we’re all different, sometimes the friends who want to talk properly are ones I’d rather text. Sometimes the ones who want to meet up are ones with whom I feel safer from the distance of Facebook likes and comments.
Phone calls can’t compensate for time spent physically together. Walking together, eating and drinking, united in silence, or sharing tears or laughter or ranting with hands waving about in exasperation. Reading each other’s body language as much as the words we say. The friends I struggle to connect with now are sometimes the ones where at times I felt the most disconnected face-to-face.
When a friend taught me about Gary Chapman’s five love languages, I was blown away. Words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. The idea that we all have modes of communicating love that we prefer, and others that we value less, made so much sense to me. When friends say affirmative things or when they used to hug me pre-Covid, it didn’t feed my soul like it did when they chose to spend hours with me or when they did something to make my life easier. The four-hour phone call friend feeds both of my love languages with the time she spent meeting up with or staying with me every time she came to London for work, as well as the phone calls, and the act of service she did when we first became friends as students. I had smashed up my room in halls of residence when my mental health was a rollercoaster. Without being asked, she helped me to pick things up and put things back as they were. More than twenty years later, I often think of her selfless act of kindness.
It’s coming up to my therapist friend’s birthday. This makes it easier – instead of an awkward Three Months Later text, I can send a card with a nice message, reminiscing about the previous year when we went for a joint birthday tea in Chelsea and hoping that we’ll be able to do that next year. Having had plenty of time to think, I realise our friendship was always one of occasional emails and regular face-to-face catch ups, and perhaps our clash in the summer was as much to do with us being unaccustomed to a telephone friendship as it was about our racial differences. I’m hopeful that our friendship will get back on track once we can see each other properly again.
I’m not going out like I used to pre-Covid, but I have stopped shielding for a while and I am going out once a week to the supermarket. I buy a birthday card. I’ll make sure I send it early.
I don’t write it. I will do it today, I say. I set a reminder on my mobile which I snooze for twenty-four hours whenever it goes off. I’m going to miss the date now.
I try to find her address. I can’t find it. As I look through my Paperchase organiser, where I have only bothered to write out half of my friends’ addresses, I can see the entries for three friends who died in the last few years. But not the living friend whose birthday I am about to miss. I realise I’m going to have to text her to ask for her address. This is minor stuff, really, but it’s getting me down. This isn’t how I’d planned it: an admission of failure.
Freud believed there are no accidents, no coincidences. Why is it that I have managed to send other friends’ birthday cards on time this year, many of them arriving days early? But this friendship I thought I wanted to heal is full of anxiety and avoidance. Am I deliberately screwing this up, and if so, why?
Suddenly she texts me. Just a hello and a brief update. She doesn’t mention her birthday, but I can see it came and went, was possibly a bit rubbish like many pandemic birthdays have been, and she decided to reach out to me after not getting a card or message as she usually would.
I keep searching. Eventually I give up and reply to her, days later, saying thanks for the message and asking for her address. I tell her I have a card sitting here for her but I couldn’t find her address. She’s sweet about it, but I imagine she probably doesn’t believe me and I don’t blame her.
I send her card, nearly two weeks late.
She sends me a card for my birthday. It arrives a day early.
About Shamini Sriskandarajah
Shamini Sriskandarajah is a therapist, bereavement counsellor, florist, writer, and editor. She writes poetry and fiction about the intricacies of loss, friendship, and family. Shamini also writes non-fiction about floristry and gardening, culture and society, and mental health and inequality. Follow Shamini on Twitter @FlowerShamini
This piece was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We wanted to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced during the time of COVID-19. We were keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We were also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented on television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important and features in some of the work in Disembodied Voices.
For the full series, click here here.
Submissions are now closed for this series.
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim,
Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.
Feature image is by Daniel Barreto for the United Nations Covid-19 response on Unsplash.