At JFK International Airport on my trip back to Malaysia, I accidentally cut someone in line while boarding my plane to Abu Dhabi. Apologizing profusely, I offered to step back behind him in the line, to which he responded that it was really OK—we each had our seats, after all.
This unexpectedly pleasant encounter sparked a 10 to 15 minute conversation, in which I learned that his name was Rajah, and that Rajah was a pretty chill dude. After complaining about the fact that my trip to Malaysia was only going to be nine days long, I learned that his trip to Hyderabad, India, would only last two days. Two days, I discovered, for his 25th reunion with his boys from IIT—the Indian Institutes of Technology.
It was interesting how he talked about his classmates, the way that he remembered more than just what they did in their youth. He told me about how they stayed in a little WhatsApp group, took yearly vacations with one another, and continued to keep in touch years after graduation. It caught me off guard how he considered these relationships to remain living, breathing, and organic.
The thing about class reunions is that they often seem more geared toward reliving memories than maintaining a working relationship. They seem to present a chance to compare where you are relative to other people: Who is still dating whom? Who went off to England? Does anyone remember how ____ did _____ to _____? Do you remember the time we _____ with ______? Do you still like ___________?
My conversation with Rajah made me reconsider what a reunion should be, and I thought to myself, “How superficial of me.”
It’s a trivial conclusion to make that people move away, that relationships don’t last. Relationships are often predicated on convenience as opposed to genuine kinship. You interact with people in your immediate surroundings because you have to. When you live in the same house with someone, for instance, friendship naturally arises because you have more opportunities to speak with each other, and over time you both gain something from the relationship; you both get to feel a little bit less alone. This mere proximity gives rise to friendship naturally as boundaries get crossed, things get shared. You tell one another that you’ll be BFFs, and that you’ll keep in touch for years after.
More often than not, people depart from each other’s lives because the condition of physical proximity is removed. Throughout the course of the year following my high school graduation, my friends and I—like many high school friends—drifted apart. We graduated from 2 years of IB, our heads held high, eyes aimed everywhere but home: Friends moved off to colleges in England, Shanghai, Japan, the US; couples took to long-distance relationships that they promised but inevitably failed to maintain; we said goodbye and promised that we would stay in touch. But we quickly became blips in each other’s existences, novelties we sometimes called on the phone, but more often ignored.
Twenty-five years is a long time to maintain a long-distance relationship, even a platonic one. The margin for error in allowing a connection to dissolve is frighteningly small. It’s easy not to send that text message, to reply to that e-mail, to return that call. It’s easy to forget to take a genuine interest in other people when they’re far away. And there, just like that, the door to the relationship closes, cemented shut by a collection of momentary lapses in caring.
Imagine everyone at UChicago jumped 25 years forward. Different places, different times; paunches in bellies, company cars, and chartered yachts; for the most part academically disillusioned. In 25 years time, that mixture of reality and faded memories will be all that’s left if I don’t make an effort to care. You will all be strangers who vaguely look the way you do now, your youth gone and your eyes no longer twinkling.
As I think of Rajah’s class reunion, I can imagine him patting old friends on the back, taking pictures, segueing into conversations as easily and seamlessly as he did in college. I can imagine him having something more interesting to talk about than that terrible introductory chemistry class they used to take together, who worked at what investment bank, or that guy who dated Kareena Kapoor for three days. I think that if I were to keep even a single New Year’s resolution this year, it would be to assure that I take that flight 25 years down the line, with the right intention, with my relationships only minimally affected by distance. I wonder to myself whether that’s the kind of reunion that I too can have.
Victor Tan is the blogger behind Not That It Matters. He is a first-year in the college.