I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.
Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.
To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.
So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.
The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.
The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.
For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.
In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.
It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.
The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.
And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.
And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.
I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.
It is now a little more than 4 years since I set foot in America. The last 2 of them have been under far more financial freedom and stability than ever before in my life. It was during this time that I traveled significantly – taking in new experiences and dwelling in the wonder of what I saw. I went to dozens and dozens of concerts, visited big cities, explored national parks, discovered places that even none of my American friends knew about. At no point in time did I forget to appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to do all those things that I did and to visit all the places I wanted to. Yes I had to work hard and go through significant troubles and bear through uncertain times to get to where I am now – like so many of my friends who chose the same path. But behind all of that was this one constant, unchanging thing: the support, encouragement and trust of my parents. Having always been very close to them since as long as I can think of, they gave me a sense of belonging and a platform I always knew I could fall back on in times of need. I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring that I would not be where I am today without their effort over the past 25 years or so. And so, during my travels in America, everywhere I went and felt the wonder of having discovered something beautiful, I ALWAYS imagined myself sharing that same experience with my parents – to bring them there and show them what they had helped me to do.
I finally got the opportunity when my parents’ visa got approved (in what ended up becoming a 1 minute interview with exactly one question asked). They arrived in the second week of July and I immediately absolved myself of all responsibilities related even remotely to the kitchen and other household stuff- including but not limited to the maintenance and upkeep of the house, laundry, dishes etc. My mom was more than happy to take over for the duration of her stay and I just let her run the house – like she has done for the past 27 years or so.
I was more than happy to have them at my place. But there is no denying my apprehension about how my lifestyle would be affected with their arrival – especially with having lived by myself for over 2 1/2 years. Fortunately, I was able to work my way around it and my parents were understanding of my evening disappearances to see my friends. And I have to admit, just the food almost made it worth it. I had long forgotten about the idea of a proper breakfast during weekdays. There was also the whole thing about someone actually serving me food – that felt like a long forgotten experience. My mom’s cooking also reminded me about the existence of so many different dishes that I immediately decided that I would simply over eat at every single opportunity and not care one bit about potential weight gain. And today, I am extremely happy to have over eaten (to the point of feeling gluttonous) at least 3 times a day continuously for about 2 months straight.
There were exactly 4 places I wanted to take my parents to. And I am very happy that I was able to accomplish all of that and under very pleasant circumstances. I got my parents to ‘hangout’ at the Old Market district in Omaha – something they never got tired of. It was and still is one of the most beautiful few blocks of downtown I have ever seen, and my parents clearly shared my view. The 3 days we spent in Chicago was extremely fulfilling too. More than the downtown boat ride, Navy Pier or the Shedd Aquarium, I had one specific thing in my mind that I wanted to do. On the second night, I took my parents to the Observatory on top of Hancock tower. A mind blowing night view of the captivating Chicago skyline – especially when you get to look down upon it. But it was not just the view that I had in mind. Yes, both my parents were thrilled beyond words at the sight in front of them. But it was only when I got my dad a glass of Jameson, right there in the Observatory, did I feel the experience complete. Sharing a drink with my dad at the Observatory was the first thing that had come to my mind when I had visited the place previously. And finally being able to do it felt like a landmark moment and a perfect celebration of my relationship with him.
As far back as I can remember, my dad has always wanted to see the Niagara Falls. My mom too. So I took them there in the Maid of the Mist. For about 5 minutes, we were completely transported to a different world – one where all you could see was this gigantic rushing mass of water. It really is one of those out-of-this-world experiences when you are at the foot of the falls in that small boat and looking up at this massive sea of water falling with an incomparable intensity. It was there at that moment that I asked them to remind themselves of where they came from, how and where they spent their childhood, and all the things they went through. And with that as the context, I asked them to look around and see where they were at that moment. The contrast dawned on them immediately and with that, a strong sense of fulfillment took me over.
Our trip to New York City happened mainly because my parents wanted to go there. I had no intention to visit the place as a big city experience has never been my idea of travelling somewhere. If you want a tip, here it is: Don’t go to NYC unless what you want to see is swarms of tourists every step of the way, a big gaping hole in your pocket and generally nothing to admire. (I will admit the Museum of Modern Art was a clear exception. I saw Starry Night and THIS painting which I now have on my wall). But my parents wanted to do the tourist’s trip which inevitably included the Empire State Building (and the mandatory 2 hour waiting period), the Statue of Liberty (an eyesore that is to be avoided under all circumstances), a drive through Wall Street (the only place where it is OK to openly admire the testicles of a bull) and the Brooklyn Bridge (good engineering, no aesthetic offering). So clearly, I did not enjoy it (and I would definitely not be going back) but I was fully aware that this trip was not for me – it was for my parents. And so it never occurred to me to complain at all.
But perhaps the best was really kept for the last. I took my parents to Wisconsin over Labor Day Weekend. Arguing against my parents’ wishes to see another big city in Minneapolis, I took them to House on the Rock, Madison, New Glarus (including the Brewery there) and Lake Geneva. The House on the Rock was where I really wanted to take them. It is a place which nobody can ever satisfactorily describe. It is a celebration of humans going beyond the limits of imagination. It is a reward for those who seek something beyond the mainstream offerings of tourism. And my parents were left in complete awe and wonder – and rightly so. Trips to New Glarus, New Glarus Brewing company and Lake Geneva was really an eye opener for my parents with regard to the other side of America – the one with the small town, antique shop and record store feel to it. My dad was particularly pleased with the New Glarus Brewery – a place which felt more like some ruins in an old Mediterranean city than a brewery where you could sample some of the best beer in the Midwest. Lake Geneva was perhaps the best portrayal of a small town American city which had maintained its small town feel in spite of the popularity of the place among tourists. Both my parents enjoyed it and the whole trip was an extremely satisfactory end to their travels here.
In addition to the travels, I was particularly happy that my parents just took in what the American Midwest – and specifically Des Moines – had to offer with great satisfaction. The extremely good nature of the people, the laid back lifestyle, a complete lack of noise or air pollution and a beautiful and safe suburb experience – all served as the perfect getaway from the stress of working life. My mom declared her love for Dunkin’ Donuts, making that her first go to place for breakfast in Chicago and NYC. My dad had never been spoilt for choice in beer before he came here (For one, he was not even aware that there were options beyond Lager). So I took him to the El Bait Shop on his birthday and he was clearly overwhelmed at their selection of beer. But perhaps my dad’s biggest achievement during his stay here was his discovery of Pink Floyd and his strong desire to see The Wire. Clearly, my dad is going in the right direction.
They left a couple of days after the Wisconsin trip. My mom made sure I did not have to cook for the following 2 weeks and I still have quite a bit of her cooking in the fridge. They took back with them bags loaded with goodies for all my family back home (including what is perhaps the best of the lot – a ‘Better Call Saul’ shirt for my cousin) along with some memorabilia from every one of their trips. But to me, their trip was more about all the things that they had always wanted to do, all the places I wanted to show them and all the experiences I wanted to share with them. It was also an opportunity for me to connect with them after a long time. And I can happily say that I was able achieve all of them.
All in all, very satisfying experience for my parents and me. Now I am back to living my old lifestyle and still savoring my mom’s cooking.