Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Dearest Sacha,

Today, you wrote about a roommate who does not seem to like you, and you wrote, “I sometimes wish I could have something like the close roommate relationships my mom had when she was in college.”

I’d like to tell you that not everyone I roomed in with became a friend. I remember being miserable with three roommates who were already roommates and friends by the time I joined them. I suppose they were not too happy with me because they all came from the same province and spoke the same dialect and I didn’t. I also kept borrowing a portable typewriter from one of them – no wonder she was pissed off with me - because my family could not afford to buy me one. Obviously the solutions were to buy my own typewriter, (my mother borrowed money to get me an Underwood portable typewriter) and to change rooms. Well, I could have tried to learn to speak their dialect, but I didn’t.

(From this experience, I learned to try to draw people into my circle, but will not persist, if they insist on staying out).

But I did form friendships with many whom I met at the dorm, some roommates and some dorm mates, and I am thrilled to think that 40 years later, we are still friends.

Living with other people is quite a challenge – and you can imagine why it is a challenge of a lifetime to marry someone and share the same bedroom for years and years. ; )

I suppose sharing a room or apartment follows the rules of physics about friction. You can’t have friction if surfaces don’t touch or rub together. So the more your lives intersect, the more chances for friction. When you live together, surface contacts can’t be helped. Trying to avoid each other can make life difficult for either or both of you.

Following this analogy, friendship, respect for, and acceptance of each other are like oils that prevent sparks (negative ones) from being thrown off by the friction of living together. In day-to-day living, respect may mean cleaning up your own space and common areas and not intruding into someone else’s space. Don’t give up the opportunity to form friendships with people you live with without trying to use those lubricants.

Please also remember that many Westerners like to define and claim their own personal spaces (physically, I think it’s an arm’s reach in front, beside and behind). They tend to be more private people who prefer to set boundaries around their personal air, visual, auditory and even emotional spaces. They like these spaces respected even when forming lines (whereas Asians don’t really mind if there are no airspaces between queuing bodies) or sitting on park benches (often occupied by one person or at most two, sitting at either end, even though there is room for three). However, there are differences among them as well, some being warmer than others in the way they relate with other people. Just understand the differences and respect them. Hopefully, it’s just a cultural barrier that personal friendships can transcend.

Now, if your roommate’s attitude turns out to be more of a personal dislike for you, don’t worry about it. Sometimes, we just have to accept that certain people do not get along, and are not meant for each other. There are more than 4 billion people on earth. I wonder how many a person meets and interacts with in a lifetime? Definitely, you cannot possibly be in good terms with everyone, and there will be people who would prefer your company while there are others who will intentionally move away from you.

If extending your hand in friendship and showing respect still fail, then the best way to avoid friction is to avoid each other (tough to do when you are roommates, but it can be done). If the relationship becomes explosive, then maybe she can ask to be transferred to another room or suite.

It will be her loss not to have known or counted you as a friend.