I’ve written in previous episodes of this series how I made friends with an Aaron Rodgers lookalike and his Malaysian roommate, and having finally found a friendship group of my own, latched onto them like a lamprey eel. But that’s not the whole story. It’s true that I spent almost all of my time with them, but I was also blessed with some other friendships during my 2012 student exchange. After years of loneliness in Bristol and Winchester back in the UK- where I’d sit on benches eating alone, staring at a group of friends walking past, telling myself that would never happen for me, that any form of companionship was denied me- the few friends I made in the USA seemed like a lot. For the first few weeks, it seemed as though friends were falling into my lap, and I wasn’t even doing anything proactively social. As I’ve stated before, just being British made me an exotic novelty- no matter how boring and pathetic I thought I was. One of my British friends asked me recently if I thought he could make friends if he went to the USA. And the answer is of course. If I can, any of you can- no matter how low your self-esteem is.
Midwesterners- Wisconsinites and Minnesotans especially- are renowned for their cheerful, kindly demeanor and affability. By and large their culture celebrates openness and politeness. Around the same time I was practically becoming adopted by Akbar and Aaron, I was making friends with two other lads who lived a few doors down the hall from us. For the purposes of this blog we’ll call them Jimmy and Zeke. Both of them were freshmen with a wild thirst for adventures. I met Jimmy first. He took it upon himself to befriend me, approaching me several times during my first week to make me feel welcome. My initial impressions of him were as someone who hung out with jocks but was extremely nice. I thought he looked like what I imagined a baseball player looked like, and I categorized him as someone who hung out with the cool kids in high school, but was universally liked- someone with a sense of schoolyard honor. Jimmy was also from Minnesota, and I feel like my entire impression of The Gopher State was grafted from his personality. Because Jimmy was such an easygoing type, I figured that all Minnesotans are similarly laidback. Whether there’s any truth to that, I’m not sure, but I haven’t had an experience that’s disproven my “chilled-out” image of the Minnesotans.
The first thing Jimmy taught me was that Midwesterners can be forward without seeming rude. Jimmy asked me if he could watch the Vikings’ season opener in my room because he had nowhere else to watch it. I was delighted to host him, although the TV wasn’t really mine. It was my roommate Brad’s, but he was out and hadn’t previously given me any indication I couldn’t use it. Jimmy figured out how to work the TV and we watched the Vikings. It was the first time I had sat down and watched American football. Jimmy explained the rules to me and my initiation into the sport I would soon come to love came from him. For some reason I was nervous about Brad walking in, even though I knew logically that he wouldn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Back then I wasn’t ruled by logic, but baseless fear born out of a lack of social exposure. I had already agreed to meet Aaron on lower campus and got ready to leave. Jimmy seemed cool with this and asked if he could stay in my room and watch. I trusted him and I was eager to please, so I said yes and left. As I walked down the hill to lower campus I kept thinking about what would happen if Brad came back and found some guy sat on the futon watching sports. It was an interesting little moment for me, as I wondered if such a thing would be awkward in the USA. My takeaway was that Americans feared social awkwardness less.
I first met Zeke a few days later when Jimmy and I grabbed lunch at Hilltop. Zeke was different to Jimmy, but the two of them made an interesting pair as roommates. I clicked with both of them instantly. Zeke was harder to categorize into a stereotype like everyone else. Jimmy was the kid in the movie that offered help to the bullied runt, teaching him how to throw a ball and swing a bat. Aaron was the guy that got the girl in the end and took her to prom. I even categorized myself- think of me as the Neville Longbottom type. But as for Zeke, I wasn’t sure where I had seen his face before. Out of everyone I met he had the most fervent zeal for collegiate adventures. He was intellectually-curious and more or less seemed to want to try everything. He grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin in a town of about three houses, that for some reason I always pictured looking like an Amish hamlet, complete with a working gristmill. As we ate lunch that day he eagerly engaged me on my religious and philosophical views. I wasn’t offended by the interest, but I felt I had to choose my words carefully. These fellas were still new to me, and I didn’t want to alienate potential friends by making myself look like the Antichrist. I just said I wasn’t sure about all that stuff, and they said that “most campuses are pretty liberal”. From that moment forward we became comfortable exchanging ideas throughout the semester, and both seemed very interested in what I had to say. They made my thoughts feel legitimate and they made me feel like I was not only smart, but interesting.
The last significant interaction I want to discuss is a friend I made in my Creative Writing Workshop class. We’ll go ahead and call him Calvin. My friendship with him follows the pattern of people finding me intriguing and going out of their way to make friends with me. Calvin had blonde hair and looked kind of like a young, Scandinavian Stephen King. He was a senior, and a fellow writer, so that made him different to the other friends I made. I remember him sitting near me, and seeing that I was shy, going out of his way to include me. Just like Zeke and Jimmy, he made me feel interesting. He often encouraged me to share my work and complimented my writing on several occasions. We agreed to meet up to see a visiting writer give a talk on campus one evening. That writer was actually Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar (See American Dervish & Disgraced). After watching Akhtar speak about the writing process and Sufism for an hour, we exchanged numbers. Later, when my 20th birthday came around, Calvin gave me a call and asked if he could treat me to a coffee or something. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, but I promised him we could hang out in the near future. The interaction is significant because it’s another example of how forward Americans can be, and how the experience of having people proactively seek out my friendship contributed to my development as a person and my overall impression of the Midwest. It was little moments like these that really made my exchange.
My idea behind this post was not only to highlight what my behavior therapist roommate would call “social initiations”, but to establish these three personalities for further posts going forward. In many ways, this piece is a necessary foundation for the next few posts in my student exchange series that I have planned. Be sure to catch the next episode tomorrow! Thanks for reading.