Since my last article, I have travelled half way around the world to arrive at New York City.
New York and I have a complicated love-affair. He is the boyfriend that keeps me coming back but won’t commit, the charming friend who repeatedly flakes on me but gets away with it. The city is so exciting and laden with adventure, you cannot help but dive into the bustle from the moment you get in – at your own peril. But arriving here after China has been a shock in the truest sense of the word. It has hit me like a Mack truck; the gentrification, the cultural variety, the very American-ness of it all.
To go from a place where a certain amount of rudeness is default, into one where the servers’ entire livelihoods depend on being excessively polite – I must admit, is a strange experience. I am usually good at juggling cultures, this is my thing by now… but every now and then I get culturally jet lagged to a such an extent that it feels like I have never been here before or being here before was nothing but a dream, and now all of a sudden it comes back to me with a vengeance. You’re not supposed to do this here, my memories echo, or other times – you absolutely must enforce this social rule! Such as tipping, or apologizing when you accidentally (albeit slightly) shove someone on the subway. My friend said to me recently “Dude, you’re not in China anymore, you were standing on that guy’s head!” — as I navigated the subway the same way I would have in Guangzhou. What??? I trust his judgement, but I noticed nothing inappropriate in the way I positioned myself – remembering China, it seems like there is so much excessive space on the NYC subway, whole pockets of emptiness for those who want to twirl, perform or just stretch out. Meanwhile, in my last few months of Chinese life I learn the trick of standing with my feet slightly apart, a balancing act that allowed me never having to hold on to a pole.
Isn’t it funny though? A place like New York is not known for peace and quiet – but perspective is everything, and when coming from Guangzhou, it is relatively less crowded with far more personal space. People say so sorry! And thank you so much when you don’t slam the door in their face. I missed these things, I find them comforting. At the same time, strangers will talk to me wherever I am – be it a bathroom line at a bar or waiting for the light to change at a busy intersection in Manhattan. At this point, I find this to be strangeness personified; at least the Chinese left me alone to my devices. Not to say I don’t like it when people are friendly, but it too is an acquired taste, something else to get used to, and it makes walking down the street in this strange land an experience for which you need to prepare.
I also recently realized how much anxiety it causes me to go to a semi-informal eatery in New York. There are so many things you need to decide on, a lot of them culturally informed, a lot of them making me feel like an outsider who does not know what they’re doing. I just about mastered Starbucks ordering lately, from letting them know what my name is, though sizing of cups and the way you need to detail various parts of your order – but what about all the little ethnic food joints that inquire about your preference in taco size, seasoning, pizza slices heated or not, bagel spreads and bagel types and — why do I write of food so much?? But I find that it is one of the things that really makes it difficult to be foreign.
And yet, a part of me is so comfortable here. This was my life for years on end, I was so good at maneuvering it. By the time that I left NYC full time, everything else felt strange. Not so anymore; the first thing that I noticed here is how complicated things have become. There are so many causes that young Brooklynites support, so many things that they shun (Trump! Gluten! Dairy!) The Chinese, in comparison, are very simple and straightforward. They work as hard as they can and then… they consume. Without concern for their intricate well-being or the environment – Not to say that this is preferable! But as excessive consciousness goes, there can indeed be too much of a good thing. The Chinese live more simply: they like what tastes good, what feels good, what looks good; the research and long term drawbacks be damned! I knew a little boy in Brooklyn once who was not allowed to have ice cream. It was dairy and sugar and just not worth it to his mother. But his eyes though – his eyes as the ice cream truck came by the park we were at – they were so sad, it seemed almost cruel to me; like something out of Oliver Twist (with a modernized twist, of course).
This is the point: every culture has their own thing. And whatever it is, you should adjust. At least if you plan on staying… or at least not going entirely mad. I’ve become very good at this myself. It’s just the sudden shifts, the shocks to my system that get to me. After all, I went on a plane for 15 hours to get here – in another time, that would have spread out over 3 months, during which, between boats and carriages – of course you’d get acclimated! But this way, the quick way, it is all I can do not to faux pas, no matter how much I love my arrivals.