Gao Zhan and Long-Distance Friendships

Last week, an article appeared in the Washington Post called “Scholar Able to ‘Breathe Freely'” by Spencer S. Hsu and Michael E. Ruane, regarding the recent release of American scholar Gao Zhan from China. Gao had been held since February on charges of espionage. Upon her release and arrival in the States, her husband Xue Donghua was quoted as saying exuberantly “As you can see, she’s real. She’s no longer a picture, no longer a TV image. She’s very happy.” This quotation was widely used in media reports (I actually heard it first on NPR, and looked it up).

It struck me at first as a pretty silly thing to say in the face of the world media — I can picture the reporters present rolling their eyes and muttering “Well, duh”. But actually, it rings true, especially for those of us who mainly keep in touch with friends and loved ones over email and the phone. Unless a person is before us, in the flesh, what we actually communicate with is their representation in our minds. Stories and reflections may be exchanged, but we can interpret and add them to our image of the person in any way we please. Of course this is true to some degree in every situation ñ reality is splintered through many eyes ñ but over time and distance, the license to keep people static is almost limitless. It takes tremendous effort to do otherwise. After all, the sense of loss as friends move away is wearing, and allowing them the freedom to change and grow beyond our perception of them takes trust and bravery in a friendship.

A close friend of mine from high school and his new girlfriend came to visit me last weekend. We spent Friday night on the porch swing, getting drunk (like in that Morphine song “French Fries W/ Pepper”) and listening to the cicadas. I went to sleep that night with an unabashed sense of joy that, despite the two years since our last meeting, my friend and I were still true and untarnished in each other’s minds. I could have jumped up and down in sympathy with Xue Donghua. The gift of being more than an image to someone else is one of the greatest you can get or give. That’s partly why I agreed to write for this site ñ I’ve got my voice, I might as well use it.