How do you define friendship? Who are your friends? Who can be your friends? We don’t often contemplate questions like these, but recently I’ve had reason to do so.
In North American culture, it is possible for a person from one generation to become friends with a person from another generation. In high school I was always better friends with a lot of my teachers than with my fellow peers. I have also always had a strange affinity with the retired generation (I think it has something to do with talking about our aches and pains).
Apparently, that’s not the case in Uyghur culture. A person from one generation would not consider a person from a different generation - whether lower or higher - to be a friend. Yes, they might act the same toward that person as they act toward their friends in their own generation, but they would not think of using the term “friend.” That would be disrespectful. The same would apply between a student and a teacher.
A couple weeks ago my friend Liz (yes I can rightly call her my friend since she is a 20 something American girl) was talking with one of her Uyghur college students. In the course of her conversation Liz mentioned how much she was going to miss all of her friends(referring to her students) over summer vacation. . The student was quick to respond and correct her mistake, “Oh no, we’re not your friends; we’re your students.”
Then just a few days ago I was out walking around campus with a young Uyghur lady my age. Part way through our walk we passed Patigul, a 72 year old woman that I spend a lot of my free time with. I exuberantly greeted her kissing both cheeks and asking numberous times about her health and family. She seemed likewise generally pleased to see me, and even invited me to stop over for tea later that afternoon if I had time. As we resumed our walk the young lady I was with asked “who was that?” “Oh, Patigul,” I said “she is a good friend of mine.” That brought on gales of laughter from my companion. I thought that maybe I had pronounced something wrong, but no, it was the concept itself that brought on the laughter. Apparently it is a ridiculous idea that I could be friends with someone several generations older than myself.
In fact the young woman informed me that I should never call some one like that my friend. I could call her my “teacher”, or my “mother”, but I must never call her “friend”. Suddenly things started to fit, pieces were coming together in my head. Even my tutor who is 12 years younger than Patigul calls her “teacher” or sometimes “big sister” instead of “friend”. If twelve years is considered a big enough gap that it is disrespectful to simply call some one a friend, then I realize I have a lot less friends out here than I thought.
It seems that, in Uyghur culture, even though you might be friends with someone older than yourself, it’s not acceptable to call them your friend. You can think of them as your friend; you can act friendly towards them, and do all the things that friends would do, but you just can’t call them that. That would be disrespectful. It just means I have been spending an immense amount of time cultivating relationships with people who have turned out not to be my “friends”. Oh well I still love them. The relationship doesn’t have to change, just its name.