Living in New York is different as an adult.
Before moving back, I had a 13-year-old frame of reference of city life — rollerblading in the park, sitting on someone’s stoop on hot days, going to Manhattan in herds.
Most have a hard time believing I spent part of my childhood in the Bronx. There’s a certain accent I apparently am supposed to have, a certain mannerism I lack. But if you looked hard enough, you’d see flashes of the Bronx. The chicken neck in fits of annoyance, the love of ’90s R&B and hip-hop and, at the time, only ’90s R&B and hip-hop, a wariness of unsolicited acts of kindness.
I didn’t move here with delusions that once I got here, everything would take care of itself. I knew life in New York was hard. You compete for everything, not only in jobs against the top overachievers from who knows where, but for even the most routine things. You fight to be the first in line, the first to get a seat on the train, to walk faster than the next person so you can get to where you need to be just a second earlier. Luckily, I’m competitive, though I haven’t won every battle. Once, my foot got caught in the train doors while I was still on the platform. Just as my life flashed before my eyes, I managed to wiggle free. These days, I’m a bit more patient. There’s always another train.
But years of winning and losing daily battles builds resilience. You know how to forgo amenities you’d enjoy elsewhere for much cheaper. Just doing laundry involves lugging or carting a Santa Claus-sized bag to a laundromat. Doing groceries requires you to buy only what you can carry because you most likely don’t have a car. Wearing heels is one of the most impractical things girls can do, given the physicality of getting anywhere, and we have the scars to prove it.
In the Bronx, I remember trudging in snow (Wow, I’m so sounding like a grandpa right now) for several blocks to get to school. I’d turned down rides from my parents’ friends long ago, opting for the autonomy of being able to go anywhere after school, usually cheerleading or Girl Scouts. And because I went to a parochial school, the only thing that shielded me from inclement weather was a plaid skirt and tights.
I remember my dad getting mugged in our apartment building after work one night, sharing a studio apartment with my family (five of us in all), the hubcaps of our brand new Camry getting stolen after being parked outside for five minutes. I remember walking down the street with my friends and having racial slurs hurled at us because we were Asian.
By the time I moved to Virginia, at 14, I’d emerged from my formative years a bit hardened. Still, I knew how to cross the street, the kinds of places and people to avoid, and to walk briskly, anywhere. I was once again different, this time different from something more homogenous. But I knew how to fend for myself. I’d done it before.
That’s why people who have lived here — I mean, really lived here — are always proud to say so. Sure, the hubris that comes with it can be grating, but it’s the only sort of arrogance that comes from having lived, no, survived something.
In about two months I’ll have been living here on my own for a year. People ask me whether the excitement has worn off yet, now that I’ve seen that living in the city is different from visiting it. What they don’t realize is the New York visitors see was never the New York I wanted to come back to.
So, no, the excitement hasn’t worn off yet. I still have so much fight left in me.
This is the first of three entries in a series I’ve so dramatically titled “The NYC Chronicles.” Find the second and third installments here and here.
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