There are sitcoms and then there are sitcoms. The kind of show that changes everything about you- from the way you dress to the way you think and behave.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S is that sitcom for me. It's the show that I keep at the back of my mind and, like a jack-in-the-box, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. trivia could slip out over coffee with my unsuspecting friends.
My obsession with F.R.I.E.N.D.S, though, has always puzzled me. Here I am, neither grown, nor a New Yorker, and especially not White (like the F.R.I.E.N.D.S cast).
Did I really understand Rachel? Could I feel what it was like for her to leave everything behind and start over? Had I felt the Ross' heartache for Rachel? Or experienced how Monica and Chandler went from friends to lovers?
These questions prompted me to look to the far side of the world – to China – for answers.
New York City maybe 7,000 miles from China, but I discovered that the lives of Chandler, Monica, Ross, Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe hold a dear place in the hearts of the Chinese millennials.
In China, F.R.I.E.N.D.S is known as a variety of Chinese titles- most notably "老友记" (lǎo yǒu jì or "Chronicle of Old Friends") and "六人行" (liù rén xíng or "The Ways of Six People"). The show, however, has never been aired on Chinese television networks, nor approved for distribution by Chinese censors.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S arrived in China on the heels of then-President Deng Xiaoping's "Reform and Opening". Reform and Opening brought China a barrage of American technology, trade, businesses and, most importantly, sitcoms to China. China's lax copyright infringement laws also made this era a golden age of piracy– with pirated DVDs sold in every major city. You could pop into just about any video store and find the latest season of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, albeit with sloppy and inaccurate subtitles. Then, the rise of the Internet gave Chinese millennials greater access to non-syndicated content.
Because of this, "老友记" has found a special place among Chinese millennials. On Douban (a Chinese television review site) the first season of F.R.I.E.N.D.S has a score of 9.6 out of 10, with glowing reviews from many viewers.
Alas, nothing good lasts forever. F.R.I.E.N.D.S was removed from major streaming sites in China just last year for unspecified copyright issues.
The absence of F.R.I.E.N.D.S has become painfully obvious on many Chinese streaming sites. Although, in many ways, the show has already made its cultural mark on China. A cafe that looks suspiciously like Central Perk is located in Beijing's Central Business District just blocks away from the World Trade Financial Center.
That's pretty good for a show that no one can watch.
What makes F.R.I.E.N.D.S able to bridge this cultural divide? For answers, I consulted a "TA" from Baidu, China's largest search engine. A "TA" is a professional that is chosen to further elaborate Baidu's encyclopedia entries. On the subject of "老友记", Baidu's TA had this to say:
The six young people in the series have different backgrounds and personalities, but they are sincere and candid about their friendships. They never shy away from interpersonal relationships and difficulties. Instead, they reflect and face them head on. These were all the details that we were unable to learn from the school, life, and parents. We are sincerely imitating them- how to learn, live, and fall in a fast-growing city."
In the kind of life that "F.R.I.E.N.D.S" showed us, many people have followed the example of learning and are even copying it. Although the show has finished, they accompanied us as we grew up. We watched them grow up, fall in love, and get married. And as people of the same age, who experienced the ups and downs of life, we probably have the same feelings. That is, everyone's life is worthy of being taken seriously and presented."
So maybe that's what it is. Maybe we don't need to live in New York City, or work as a paleontologist, or get married in Vegas. Maybe all we need is to know that life goes on and that change is constant. Life is the scary kind of change – a Chandler-shaped hole in the wall kind of scary – but it could turn out wonderful as well.
And maybe life is also about being sincere and authentic. It is about being honest to the people around you. And keeping it all together, even when it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.
What does "F.R.I.E.N.D.S" mean to you? Let us know in the comments below.