Turning 40: The People Who Changed My Life

I’ve been fortunate so far to have lived my life surrounded by people who support me. My dad worked extremely hard his whole life to make sure I had not only my basic needs of shelter and good nutrition met, but also that I had opportunity to explore my interests, learn, and ultimately become a successful adult. Later in life, I found wonderful friends who provide emotional support, encourage me to accomplish the things I want to, and make life better just by their presence. Additionally, many people throughout my life have inspired me in small and big ways, have (sometimes unbeknownst to them) been role models, and have changed my opinions and perspective. I appreciate all these people so much for their influence on me. But here at the halfway point, there are two people who, in crossing my path, literally changed the entire course of my life and who I am fundamentally as a person. 

Melissa Maimon: Melissa and I met in 1997, freshman year during my only semester at Gettysburg College. I thought she was the coolest. So did everyone else. She just had this chill, girl-next-door, happy vibe that made everyone like her. She seemed more mature than I felt at that age, better able to handle her emotions and the emotions of people around her. I would later realize that came from her family. To this day, she has the most loving and healthiest relationship with her mother and brother that I have ever witnessed. Melissa and I connected over a lot of shared experiences, especially being some of the only kids at Gettysburg who came from lower-middle class families and were on hefty scholarships.

When I quit Gettysburg and went back to Buffalo, we stayed in touch. In the summer of 1999, she invited me to live with her in the bungalow on the Jersey shore her family had inherited from her grandmother. Of course I said yes. To date, that was the single most pivotal decision in my life.

All summer long, the boardwalks of south Jersey are filled with international students on J1 visas, there to earn a little money and work on their English skills. Suddenly, little old me from a conservative family and a town of 10,000 in Western New York was hanging out with people from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, and a dozen European countries. It was a blast! In addition, Melissa kept talking about how she was going to study in Spain the next semester. So all these foreign kids were in America and she was going abroad soon…what was I doing sitting in Buffalo? Nothing. But I wasn’t going to be doing nothing much longer.

All because of Melissa, what happened after that summer was the following:

  • I spent three semesters studying abroad in three separate countries
  • I became a teacher of English as a Second Language after graduating, working in four different countries and visiting a dozen more during that time
  • I became fluent in Spanish (finally) and learned a lot of Russian, both languages which led to me being a multilingual tour guide in Niagara Falls years later
  • I met a Russian man while I was living in Moscow, brought him back to the United States, married him, went to the University of Denver for grad school instead of my top choice school in California because Denver was a better option for us as a couple
  • I also worked with refugees and displaced people while I was in Moscow, which is the whole reason I decided to go to graduate school because I wanted to study international development
  • I stayed in Denver after getting my MA because my Russian husband couldn’t easily follow me around the world wherever I wanted to go. It was much harder for him to get any kind of visa, much less a work visa. After we divorced, I was so rooted in Denver that I decided to stay
  • I got my first real adult job, as a localization project manager, and discovered a career field that really interested me because of my experience working with people from different cultures and my language skills
  • I made a very good friend at that job who would later get me the job I have right now, a job which has worked out very well for me professionally

I could go on and on and on down the chain of events my life that happened because of that one opportunity Melissa gave me 20 years ago. Perhaps I would have found my way to international travel without that summer on the Jersey shore, but perhaps not. Before that summer, I had a vague, generic interest in the world, but living outside the United States for any reason never crossed my mind. I wanted to get my degree and move to New York City or Washington DC. But even if I had discovered a love of expat life in another way at another time, my experiences would have been entirely different. And I wouldn’t be who I am right now.

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Together again in Cape May, 19 years after the summer that changed my life.

Phuong Nguyen: I met Phuong in the spring of 2011 at a weekend long, GRE teacher training for the Princeton Review, where we were both employed as test prep tutors. At that point in my life, I didn’t have many friends, certainly no close ones, and I was pretty unhappy in my marriage. I was lonely and miserable. I don’t remember talking to her all that much during the training or what we talked about, but what I do remember is her grabbing my arm at one point and declaring loudly, “We are going to be friends.”

For the first two decades of my life, I had a lot of friends. I grew up in a small town where most of us were in school together all fourteen years from preK on up. I had a tight circle of about fifteen people that I hung out with from middle school on, and I was on friendly terms with plenty of other people in our grade. I had two close girlfriends during that time as well. But when I turned sixteen and got a car and a job, I stopped hanging out with everyone so much. I spent a ton of time with the new people I met at my job, many of whom were a few years older than me. After high school, I quickly lost touch with all my high school friends. The blame for that is solely on me, not on them. I don’t know why I ditched everyone, but I did.

Unfortunately, around the same time I was graduating high school, all the older kids I had been spending a lot of time with were graduating college and heading out into the world, so I lost them too. Compound that with me going out of state for one semester, then opting to go to a university with 30,000 students and rarely having classes with the same people more than once, changing my major three times therefore really not having an academic cohort, and spending three semesters abroad in a pre-social media era making it impossible to stay in touch with people I met here and there, so by the end of college, I really didn’t have any friends. There were some people I hung out with casually, but I wouldn’t say I had anyone I could call a friend.

I kept that trend going by moving overseas for many years after graduation. I’d be in one country for six months, another for two months, another for nine months. Always dreaming of my next destination, I never tried to make friends because I didn’t see the point, knowing that we’d all fly off to new countries and new adventures soon enough. And again, this was really pre-widespread social media use, so when we left each other, that was it.

I remember sometimes feeling lonely during this time, but for the most part, I was so busy with the mental stimulation of constant travel and new experiences, that I didn’t have time to be lonely.  I did notice that other people I worked with seemed to bond easily and get close to each very quickly, but somehow, years of living as an itinerant foreigner had made me very closed off. I felt awkward talking about deep or personal topics or being my true, weird self around people I just met, so I preferred to keep to myself. Somewhere along the way, I almost entirely forgot how to connect to other people. I was so in my own head all the time.

When I met a man who I later married and (mysteriously) became the object of his unconditional affection and love, I clung to him. I had “a person” finally. But that wasn’t healthy either because having a person gave me even less incentive to make friends. I now had someone to erase those twinges of loneliness I felt occasionally during my international life. My extreme introversion didn’t change much when he and I moved back to the United States because I still felt like a totally outsider. I made three new, casual friends in Buffalo, but knowing I would leave in two years for graduate school, I didn’t get too close to them. Same thing in graduate school – my plan was to study for eighteen months and then head back overseas, so why bother getting opening up to anyone? Again, I did make several casual friends—lovely people who I’m still in contact with to this day—but I kept my emotional distance.

And now we’re caught up to Phuong. In the spring of 2011, my once exciting life had turned into a “normal” American life. I had a 9-to-5 office job and planned to stay in Denver. But I had really only one semi-close friend left from grad school and another friend I had met at work. And I wanted a divorce, which was scary given that I had been with the Russian for nine years at that point, but also necessary since we didn’t connect emotionally at all anymore. I was unquestionably lonely.

Phuong changed that. I don’t know what she saw in me, but we started hanging out all the time. And slowly I learned from her behavior. She constantly makes an effort to pull people together, to plan events, to make sure everyone is having a good time and feels included. When she asks you “how are you” she really cares. She listens to your answer and if there’s any hint of a problem, she jumps on it and helps you figure it out. She remembers things you tell her about your life and follows up on things you say you are going to do or things you want to work out. She makes you feel important. She makes you feel like your concerns are valid and your decisions matter. And she does all this for her friends despite having her own intense, vicious inner demons to contend with. It is no small feat how utterly devoted she is to the people she loves.

Four years after we met, she moved to Washington DC. Generally, when people move away, your friendship fades over time. This is normal, but somehow not at all what happened with me and Phuong. We see each other several times a year. She is still the person I can tell anything to, the person whose advice I trust most. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that she is more responsible for the upkeep of our friendship than I am. It’s not that I don’t want it. I very much want to know her forever and ever. But being a friend is still something I have to work on every day. Phuong makes it appear effortless and she is genuine, but I know she works really hard at getting out of her own head and being such a wonderful person to people who need her.

Her declaration on that weekend we met was true. We are friends. Furthermore, she taught me how to be a friend (though I’m still learning), and because of the example she set, I now have a large group of other good friends I truly care about and know I can count on.

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