Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Letter about New York

You asked me why I love New York above all other cities and I told you I couldn't explain it, I just do. After I came back, I thought about this question for a bit more and thought I'd share some of my thoughts here.

New York is special for me because it has both the familiar and the foreign. I've come here often as a kid to visit museums (natural history was my favorite) and the annual rockefeller christmas tree ( often very crowded and very cold but it's an annual family tradition and I actually miss this event now that everyone is on their own). I actually did get accepted to a college here but opted to go to D.C. because I knew I would be back someday. I got to explore many new places during my one year in graduate school and eventually whem I started work, and continue to do so everyday that I'm here. 

Don't get me wrong, I loved DC, almost so much that I missed going abroad for my junior year. (ok, there were personal reasons too, but that's a story for another time). Our campus and the surrounding area will always hold a special place in my heart. And my spirits soar when I see Healey tower, every fucking time. However, I just had enough by the time I graduated and jumped on the chance to get away as far as possible, to Shanghai. 

Shanghai was an unreal experience. Eventhough I had been thoroughly Americanized after ten years of living in the US (6 years in Florida no less, which isn't known for diversity), I felt incredibly conflicted when I stayed in Shanghai. All my other visits to China had involved sightseeing and visiting relatives, I wasn't living and studying and working in any type of community socializing with Chinese people. In Shanghai, I got to do all of the above, and more. For the first time, I appreciated Shanghainese food with its sweet pork, seafood, and juicy xiaolongbao. I loved the experience and felt so lost and conflicted about whether I wanted to move back to China after getting my Masters. I found a side of me that had been hidden for a while. I really wasn't sure if I'm more Chinese or American. About halfway through the summer I was even afraid of the prospect of becoming a US citizen. Once I gave up my Chinese citizenship, I can never get it back. I would always be a foreigner in my birth country. and I would be trading my Chinese name for an English one, my official Chinese name in its character form would disappear from all my official documents, replaced by its ugly pinyin equivalent, which loses all of its meaning and beauty. ( p.s. I eventually got over this and got my US passport when I was eligible to apply. And now have to pay through the roof for visas for visiting China. Oh well)

New York life wasn't difficult at all after Shanghai. Both are chaotic and ugly and beautiful and full of life. But New York was a fresh page, without all the memories of my previous homes. Here, I spent most of my free time wandering and exploring. In my previous residences, I've always had associations of friends, relatives, school, work, etc for all the restaurants, venues, and streets. In New York, I didn't always associate locations with people. For every place I take friends, I have another two that I like to keep to myself. The city is large enough that I can choose to go to my own little world. Some of my best memories from New York are the random walks and adventures around town on a weekend or summer evening. No planning, just pick a direction and walk with no particular destination in mind. The best part is there are many ways to go from point A to point B, and every time it's a completely different experience. One day I may be admiring some fresh flowers blooming out the sidewalk, another day I may notice the gorgeously old building that I missed on my daily commute route. When the streets close, I take another street and discover a new favorite park. During the day, evening, summer, winter, every street is different. And if you havent seen sunrise or sunrise, I suggest you try to do so. Manhanttanhenge is a must! 

And whenever I eat something simple yet delicious, like that fresh tomato basil mozzarellla sandwich, thin crust pizza, salty deli pickled tomatoes, street lamb over rice, microbrew beer, Shake Shack custard and burger, home style Japanese food, pastrami, vermouth saffron mussels, black and white cookie, olive bread, or some other thing that people outside New York just don't have or don't do well, I am reminded again why I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. Can I really have the best of everything in one convenient place? 

New York is also full of possibilities and choices and decisions, which would seem downright impossible for someone who is as indecisive as I am. But for whatever reason, it is also extremely attractive, because one wrong decision or memory can't ruin the entire city for me. When things go wrong, I can always find a new place or retreat to my favorite quiet spot. 

I think many New Yorkers seem unfriendly because they love the city too much. They feel that only they, the true natives (whatever that means), get to walk the city streets and enjoy all of its benefits (arts, culture, food, entertainment, etc). I have to admit I get irritated once in a while too. I know it's crazy to own something so big and call it my own, but at times when you love something, you want it all to yourself. I'm sure everyone has a secret restaurant or park or bar or bakery that they don't share with too many friends, afriad the place will be crowded out with too many familiar faces.

Whenever I feel sad or when life is not going particularly well, I search for the keyword 'new york' in tumblr. There I will find millions of posts from people all over the world, who would give up all of their savings and borrow money just to be here. For many across the world, it is simply a dream. For me, it is a reality, so my problems and sadness usually evaporate as I try to find solace and comfort again, in the city that can at times feel so cold and cruel. 

Of course there are also a ton of reasons why a sane person wouldn't want to live here. The rent is expensive, the nightlife is expensive, the environment is tough for a family with kids, etc etc. The lifestyle and atmosphere also crush people who can't toughen up and deal with the harsh realities of life. And that's why getting away once in a while is a healthy thing. I remember when I visited Chicago, I was the only person rushing up the escalators at the subway station, it was pretty ridiculous. In DC, I'm always the first person to take the initiave to hunt down a waitress for a table, before people in front of me even got to speak. I realize these survival skills in the city are downright insane to someone from the outside, and so I try to be more patient, friendly, and chill out more when I can. Coming from a city that has a fast pace also makes me very judgemental and critical of places that don't measure up. Sometimes I know I just can't use New York as a model for everything.

Some times people ask me whether New York is indeed like Sex and the City or some other show or movie, I tell them they need to visit and see it for themselves. I actually really like Woody Allen movies about New York best: 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan'. One recent movie I really liked which takes place in NYC is 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist'. Awesome soundtrack too. The kids movie Madgascar is also appropriate, and includes many inside jokes about city life. And there's also Seinfeld which takes so many New York moments, which are all the more real now that I've experienced it.

The city is both vast and intimate, old and new, dangerous and safe, predicable and mysterious, fun and boring, loud and quiet, expensive and affortable, heaven and hell. It's not 'you can make it here, you can make it anywhere', but more 'you can make it here, why go anywhere else?' If you ever meet someone who's been here all their life, they can tell you where they lived, what delis they still go to, and at what bar they met their husband of 40 or so years. This place never ceases to amaze, surprise, love everyone who walks the streets.

And that's why it is so complicated to explain my love for New York. How do you explain your love for something so complicated yet so simple? I can't explain it, I just do.     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this post.