I’ve never lived in a city before. Sure, Duke is *technically* an urban campus because it’s in the middle of Durham, but let’s be real here – we’re in such a bubble that the city might as well be miles away. My hometown is a friendly suburb near Dallas, home to about 40,000 people and 1 large public high school (technically 2, but the smaller one shared so many facilities with us and has such small graduating class that we don’t take it seriously). Living in Manhattan, less than a few minutes away from Union Square, is such a change. Somehow, this borough manages to house 1.6 million people in about twice the area that my town holds literally 40 times fewer. The entire population of my town equals about half of the students who graduate from New York City’s school system every single year. It’s hard for me to even comprehend that quantity of humanity clustered in such a small space, but it’s obvious basically every time I step out the door. I’ve always been an extrovert, and I’ve always been a complete night owl, so being let loose in the city that never sleeps is basically a dream – I take so much joy in walking back from the gym late at night, just amazed at the number of people I pass on my 5 block walk home, all busily headed somewhere, undaunted by the darkness interrupted by the bright lights of the seemingly infinite buildings around us. It’s majestic. I doubt I’ll ever be less stunned by it.

How lucky are we to live right here?!

But I have to say, it’s also given me a new perspective on my little hometown. I spent my entire life waiting to get out of it, and it’s only once I’ve left that I realize how much of myself I owe to the place I grew up – how much the circumstances of your childhood shape the person you are, and how vital that understanding those circumstances are to understanding a person – and especially a community. My fully grown, adult co-workers at GGE lack licenses, but have probably been fluent in the language of the subway since they were tweens. (Middle school students have no difficulty switching between subway lines and buses to get where they’re going, whereas I accidentally went all the way uptown instead of downtown on my second day of work…) I’m so comfortable with the leisurely small talk typical of a Southerners that I’m totally thrown off by New Yorkers always in a rush to get everywhere. I’m still adjusting to having to be on guard constantly, to the idea of always being surrounded by strangers, and I realize that my general lack of awareness and carefree, naive attitude comes from having grown up in a place where I never felt remotely worried for my safety. This whole idea of applying to high schools, or going through a metal detector every morning to enter the building, or being “pushed out” of school by harsh discipline policies are entirely foreign to me. I might have spent my entire life in public school, but it was a reputable district in which I was academically challenged and felt almost stifled by the care of my administrators, unlike many NYC public school kids who have the opposite problem.

Not to say that my experiences in some way make me superior (despite clearly having grown up with considerable privilege) but that my background is vastly different from that of the people I’m surrounded by at GGE, and the girls that I’m working with. This summer, I’ll be heading up a project to bring anti-harassment workshops to a Brooklyn high school, so I’ve been talking to recent alums of the school to get a sense of their school culture and policies, and I was stunned to realize how different it was from my own. Working in a context so different from the one I’m used to means that I’ll have to listen a lot more than I speak, and address this community according to its own self-defined needs rather than my perception of it. I’m a foreigner in this big, wild city and I can’t expect to understand it or its people unless I really rely on the natives here who know it better than I probably ever will. I’m starting to get comfortable in everything that I don’t know, and accepting that I’m a newbie around here, and that I’ve got a lot to learn. If any of these New Yorkers show up in Dallas, I can show them around my home turf – but as long as I’m here, I’m going to soak up as much of Big Apple as I can, and hopefully I’ll come out of this summer a little less suburban and a little more versed in the life of a city kid.

1 thought on “Alien

  1. Sai I loved your take on this. I can completely relate to everything you are feeling. I came from such a tiny town too and I know it’s such a big shock to be here with so many people. I think you’re adjusting great though!

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