New York

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crises.

I walk fairly fast. Not like speed walking, but brisk with long strides. You can tell I have someplace to be, a destination that is pulling at me. Except that destination is an illusion that I have made up in my mind. I don’t actually have to be anywhere at any time if I don’t want to be.

And yet, I continue to walk. Past the stores filled with golden hues and ruby tiles, past the cafes filled with laughter and sometimes cigarettes, past the big red sale sign, past the Washington Square Park with the two saxophonists, past the Washington Square Arch with the street dancers and music coming from what seems to be a virginal. I walk past all these things, wishing I had stopped a few steps too late. I’m already past the scene, and can’t bring myself to retrace my steps.

I’m so self-conscious. I’m so fuckin’ aware of how I feel.

There are two aspects of New York that make me feel uncomfortable. Firstly, I hate entering and exiting poor and rich neighborhoods one after another. I hate how you can almost smell how rich someone is here. You wonder if the sales person is judging how much you can afford as soon as you enter a store. I look into huge glass buildings and at the people running on treadmills and wonder what their lives must be like—to possess a gym membership worth a thousand dollars. They are mostly white with even whiter teeth.

And then there are the tourists with their fanny packs and overlapping rolls of fat, the tough guys who lean against store fronts and alleyways smoking a few, the cashier at the corner store who speaks with a Korean accent. And there’s me.

How mercilessly might others shove me in a box as I have everyone else? But I can’t help it. It’s glaring at me—these stock images of the American life and dream that I hate. Who am I? This person who lives on the upper east side of Manhatten, in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and brother?

There are nuances to everything I see, but it’s just too tempting to ignore all of them here. It’s borderline fascinating and sadistic.

The second issue has to do with my insane desire to be different from everyone else around me. It’s insane because I’m the type of person who marvels at how similar people actually are.

My point is, I hate feeling like an anonymous face in a crowd. I feel like New York defines the people who live there and not the other way around. Granted, it probably feels like that because I’m new here, and I’m trying to make this place feel like home. But the idea of New York keeps poking my ego.

Like when I go to the Museum of Natural History and the guard asks me where I’m from and tosses me a curious look when I say Manhattan. Did he mean to ask me what my ethnicity was?

Or when I say Manhattan and an acquaintance asks for more specifics. I give her the street and avenue as I hope to dear God that she doesn’t know the place. “Oh, there! My grandparents live near there. I love that area of town.” It’s unnerving when so many people know so much about your neighborhood.

I like the feeling of knowing something no one else knows, being somewhere no one else knows, doing things no one else knows. Maybe it’s an inferiority complex.

8 thoughts on “New York

  1. Dear Sunhay,

    Thank you for your insights about New York City. You are a beautiful writer. On your first point about the unequal distribution of wealth, is it more obvious in New York than elsewhere? On your second point, I first thought you were commenting on anonymity–how everyone seems to screem to be noticed but not notice others–but then your comment about the nuances of street addresses makes it seem like almost the opposite point–that people know or want to know too much about each other. Thank you for sharing this essay.

    • The unequal wealth distribution is not as obvious as it is in the streets of Hyderabad, India, but more obvious than what I see in my dorm or in the streets of Seoul, Korea where I grew up. At the same time however, there probably is just as much inequality amongst my college friends and my neighbors in Korea. And if you were to ask me what I prefer–to see as opposed to not see–I prefer to see. In this aspect, New York is the perfect place to watch how unequal wealth distribution plays out in everyday life. And it should make me feel uncomfortable.

      On the second point about my contradictory observations. That contradiction is very interesting to me. How I can feel invisible but be hyper-visible at the same time. As I continue to explore New York, it seems that no one cares where you’re from or what you do even though most everyone is trying to stand out from the crowd one way or another.

      Granted, this post is all about my first impressions of New York and I hope to write a post about my lasting impressions of this city.

  2. I appreciated your insights on the anonymity of New York as well. I wondered whether your feelings about New York have as much to do with the place as they do with the feeling of purpose for being here. I found that as I have made my own path and routine here, New York has allowed me to feel both embraced, important, fortunate, part of the pulse of things, and also private, anonymous, able to reflect even in the middle of a bustling block. As you get more immersed in your summer project, one that sounds like it is very much part of the fabric and diversity of New York, I wonder if you will feel that your work allows you to make your mark on the City, and in that sense feel like you are making New York your own.

  3. You are full of contradictions about which you are painfully self-aware. You make descriptive observations of NYC life and how it makes you feel. As I read your blog, I keep wondering how you chose the placement you did, what you hope to gain from your summer experience, and how your personal musings in this blog entry relate to the aforementioned questions?

  4. Dear Sunhay,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

    New York can be an overwhelming place, in many ways defined by contradictions. You have identified some of those contradictions in your piece. The coexistence of wealth with dire and entrenched poverty often strikes me as the most difficult to deal with. Also, as you point out, the scale and size of the city can lead to a degree of anonymity that can be frightening and yet many have also found it liberating, a way of reinventing themselves. However, social networks in New York can also be surprisingly and alarmingly small, even provincial.

    I concur with Michele in looking forward to seeing you explore how these contradictions that define New York impact the life of the people in the group you are working with: not only clients, but also providers. I also look forward to hearing how the experience of working with such group enriches your own relationship and experience with the city.

  5. What you’re describing is “diversity” as an experience and not just a concept. In New York, as you see, there’s not much physical space to separate the poor from the rich, the natives from the newcomers, and the tourists from everybody else. We’re all trying to negotiate a space for ourselves, and part of that effort is sorting out everybody else. You may want to consider that the questions you’re getting are standard openers of people who want to make a connection, and it’s up to you to define yourself beyond the basics of where you live and what you do. If you can overcome the self-consciousness, you may find New York feeling more like home.

  6. Sunhay, like the other readers I appreciate the honesty in your observations and contradicting feelings. Since it sounds like you are from New York, I am curious to know if your reactions to the city are new since you went away to college, or if they reflect long-held feelings? I am always fascinated to hear from people who grew up here how their relationship with the city has changed over time. I also wonder about the perspectives of the women you will encounter at Women in Need this summer – do they share some of your feelings about New York, or do they have different opinions?

  7. Sunhay,
    I am eager to hear more about the Women in Need Center and your role there this summer.
    Do you think the clients of Women in Need think about the things you wrote about in your essay – rich/poor neighborhoods and being different from everyone else – how do they view these ideas or do they?
    I thought your comments about “How mercilessly might others shove me in a box as I have everyone else?” topic were interesting. What is so fabulous about NYC is that it is so big and so filled with everything imaginable, that you can just be who you are, whatever that is and who cares what anybody else has to say about it.

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