6 surprising things I learned about New York in 6 days

new-colossusNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

– Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’ (1883)

Have you ever experienced moments in life when you feel restless and reckless, like there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet got round to doing because of [insert excuse 1][excuse 2][excuse 3]?

For all the stultifying effects that a life of routine poses on the mind, thoughts of reckless abandon hit me on a regular basis, but if I were to act on them every time they came knocking on the door of my consciousness, I would probably be the poster child of millennial bohemianism by now, living like a troglodyte in a ranch ten thousand feet below some random Idahoan mountain for half a year and jet setting in a perennially airborne state for the other half, courtesy of parentally accumulated mileage points and savings.


My kind of paradise

But since I’m born of more responsible genes, I have only very occasionally given in to my more whimsical fancies.

One such occasion, however, took place about 4 months ago, when I – in the heat (literally) of the moment – decided that I would spend the penultimate week of my 2016 exploring New York City, just because I could, and also because the only possible way to console myself in the middle of a September heatwave (read: climatological misery) was to look forward to walking in a winter wonderland way up in the Northern hemisphere (which, in retrospect and in light of my near-frostbites from walking around for 2 hours in Central Park, can also be a climatological misery – not wonderful at all).


Frozen lake at Central Park in the wee hours of the morning

But really, though, why? 

I suppose another major reason stems from a residual streak of filial defiance: ever since I was a child, the one country my parents explicit avoided and disapproved of has been the US of A. Post-9/11 and the outright bravado of the Bush Administration that we would see daily broadcasted on CNN, any talk of traveling across the Atlantic for a family trip went straight out of the window.

I can still remember how my dad would harp on forever about the apocalyptic fate of America in the years after 9/11, and any gun-related tragedies that happened thereafter would only be a vindication of their belief that America is a dangerous country for fools to rush in where their little angel (that would be, eh, me) should fear to tread.


Guys, make up your minds already…

Thinking back to our conversations about America, I’m reminded of the heated father-daughter exchanges between Seymour ‘Swede’ and Merry Levov in Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral (1997), in which the dad tries to talk his rebellious 16-year old teen out of making weekend trips to New York City, for the very reason that it is “a dangerous city” where “there are drugs [and] violent people”:

Conversation 1 about New York: “What do you do when you go to New York? Who do you see in New York?” “What do I do? I go see New York. That’s what I do.” “What do you do, Merry?” “I do what everyone else does. I window-shop. What else would a girl do?”

Conversation 12 about New York: “Where do you eat your meals in New York?” “Where everyone else eats their meals. Restaurants. Cafeterias. People’s apartments.”

Conversation 44 about New York: “I’m not driving you to the train. You’re not leaving the house.” “What are you going to do? B-barricade me in? How you going to stop me?… What is it that you’re so afraid of? What is it you’re so afraid of people for? Haven’t you ever heard that New York is one of the world’s great cultural centers? People come from the whole world to experience New York. You always wanted me to experience everything else. Why can’t I experience New York? Better than this d-dump here [in New Jersey]… Why don’t you worry about something that matters, like the war, instead of whether or not your overprivileged little girl takes a train into the b-big city b-by herself?”

Conversation 53 about New York: “You still won’t tell me what kind of horrible fucking fate is going to b-b-befall me if I take a fucking train to the city. They have apartments and roofs in New York too. They have locks and doors too. A lock isn’t something that is unique to Old Rimrock, New Jersey… You think everything that is f-foreign to you is b-bad. Did you ever think that there are some things that are f-foreign to you that are good?”

(p. 104 and 110, Vintage edition)

In comparison, then, dad’s pre-departure Whatsapp message to me seems remarkably chillaxed – “Careful in NY. Not the safest place in the world. Stay away from crowds. Keep in daily touch.” #perksofbeingover21 #adulthood #prerogatives


Tom Hanks as a stateless airport hobo in Spielberg’s 2003 The Terminal

As a longstanding Americanophile, however, the idea of setting foot on American soil has always been at the top of my bucket list, ever since I was introduced to the insulin-spiking guilty pleasure that is Cheerios and Twinkies, the Sunset Boulevard and Saks Fifth Avenue backdrops in Hollywood films and HBO dramas, and the ‘Dream Big At All Costs’ philosophy that is personified in literary heroes the likes of Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Sal Paradise et al.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but had I not taken my Optional Paper in ‘The Post-1945 American Novel’ for my final year course at Oxford, I would not have deemed my undergraduate education in English Literature complete, notwithstanding the irony of my transatlantic misplacement.


Just American things

Anyway, I figured that I had nothing to lose, and having saved up a fair bit over the past year, I asked myself what was holding me back (nothing), took the plunge (not without fear), scavenged for the cheapest airfare I could find, and ended up bagging myself a pretty good deal in the form of a 5000 HKD return ticket from Hong Kong to NYC, with a layover in Beijing (the layover turned out to be a mighty ordeal, but more on that later).

beijing-nyc-air-ticketThe result of this, I’m glad to report, is –

(1) a weeklong exploration of a city I have always wanted to visit,

(2) a deepened understanding of American architecture and history, as well as

(3) a stronger awareness of my privileges and limitations as a 22-year old woman in a globalised world.

In what follows, I’ll relay the 6 things that most struck me about the Big Apple, with the customary referencing of an excellent but underrated author I’ve recently read.

netherland-coverHis name is Joseph O’Neill, and he is an Irish-Dutch-Turkish lawyer-author whose novel Netherland is a beautifully written and gripping tale about how a Dutch expat living in NYC and London regains an understanding of himself by rediscovering his native love of cricket, forming an unorthodox friendship with a brilliant but dangerous businessman and mending broken relationships with people he holds dear.

If, at any point, I happen to digress into occasional suspensions of self-indulgent lyricising, I do apologise pre-emptively, which, I suppose, is a very British thing to do and evidence that I’ve yet to affect much of your typical American brazenness (Don’t shoot me!).

* * *


Straight from the screen of emergency exit seat 39E

Arriving in New York: How I went about exploring the city

According to The Culture Trip, New York is hands down the most walkable city in the world, and while I can’t claim to have walked around in many cities, I can definitely attest to NYC’s high degree of walkability.

Right from the get go, I made a commitment to eschew the subway whenever possible, opting instead for the more scenic but time-consuming podiatric journeys that would range from as far as the distance between City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights Promenade (4 miles) or the Diana Ross Playground in Mid-Central Park to the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan (3 miles), to as brisk as that between Washington Square Park to Chelsea Market by way of the High Line or Times Square and the Museum of Modern Art (both roughly 2 miles).


The orange path (that continues on beyond the image) is one of my walking routes

Suffice it to say that by the end of my weeklong trip, I wore the sore bunions on my feet as the veritable marks of a traveler’s pride.

I also find it a wonderful irony that while the Native American meaning of the word ‘Manhattan’ is ‘many hills’, New York’s history of urban development should have rendered the city a virtual flatland over time, as opposed to Hong Kong Island, where its landform is largely composed of steep hills and hilly altitudes.

Far from living out my teenage dream scene of frolicking down Madison Avenue in 6-inch Louboutins with Sephora carrier bags in one hand and a Chanel tote in another, most of the time I was bundled up in a 10-pound flea market velvet coat and a red pom-pom beanie a tad bit too puny for the size of my head, all the while trudging down pavements in a pair of Timberland hiking boots so worn out I think even the most charitable charity shop in Greenwich Village wouldn’t accept as a second-hand item for sale.


Not so much this as…


This. (With trousers as well, of course. Gosh)

So, no, I didn’t quite look the part of the picturesque jet setter in beautiful NYC, but it was for this that I felt all the more liberated as someone who had no fronts to put up for anyone and all of the city to take in for herself.

Once I focused my full attention on my surroundings, I began to notice things about the sights, roads, ambiance and people of New York City that surprised me, because they either ran contrary to or were absent from my imagination of the place as fostered from my steady diet of American novels, poems, films and photographs.

I had never been to New York before and I was capable of marvelling even at the traffic lights on Amsterdam Avenue, a red muddle that as you crossed the street organised itself into eternally tapering emerald duos. If I was not trying out the part of flaneur I was watching the C-SPAN coverage of the [Clinton] impeachment proceedings… It was quickly my impression… that making a million bucks in New York was essentially a question of walking down the street – of strolling, hands in pockets, in the cheerful expectation that sooner or later a bolt of pecuniary fire would jump out of the atmosphere and knock you flat. Every third person seemed to have been happily struck down: by a stock-market killing, or by a dot-com bonanza, or by a six-figure motion-picture deal for a five-hundred-word magazine article about, say, a mystifying feral chicken which, clucking and pecking, had been found roosting in a Queens backyard.

(p. 88, Netherland, Harper Perennial edition)

Coincidentally, the hostel I stayed at was also situated on Amsterdam Avenue, so I guess I started off my exploration of New York City at the same point as Joseph O’Neill’s protagonist, Hans, in his Netherland.


My hostel – highly recommended – check out my review of it here

Anyway, on to my 6 reflections and observations of NYC:

1) NYC is more grit and grime than glitz and glam

In terms of urban aesthetics, New York City isn’t as glitz and glam as everyone makes it out to be. In fact, a handful of the neighbourhoods look quite grubby and run-down, some I suspect deliberately so, others simply due to general negligence over time. In particular, East Village, Alphabet City and certain parts of Greenwich Village struck me as being less characterfully nonchalant about its lack of polish than as half-forgotten remnants of urban development projects that came to no avail.


Lower East Side


East Broadway station

In addition, the Manhattan skyline, when seen on a foggy day over the Brooklyn Bridge, looks less like that of a world-class metropolis than the design of an architect who went a bit overboard with the 60s Brutalist aesthetic and decided to repackage it last minute as ‘post-industrial chic’.


Lego city: Manhattan as seen on the Brooklyn Bridge

Otherwise, all I can say is that federalist architecture is more puritanical than pretty, and any building that had me going ooh and aah turned out to be examples of the Beaux-Arts style, which the Americans adopted from the French when Richard Morris Hunt, designer of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, first attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the mid-19th century.


The Morgan Library and Museum


The New York Public Library

Is this, then, why so much of 20th century American literature is so self-conscious about the pursuit of authenticity (DeLillo by way of consumerist satire, Updike by way of finding the ‘real’ in the mundane, McCarthy by way of resuscitating the Western as the Ur-American narrative etc.), because the authors are aware that the bedrock of their culture is often derived, secondary and a product of European simulacrum?

2) NYC is multifaceted in every way

NYC is way more multicultural and multi-ethnic than any city I have ever travelled to/lived in, which is a fascinating and novel experience for me. Honestly, Hong Kong needs to re-evaluate the veracity of its ‘Asia’s World City’ moniker, because it is nowhere near as globalised as New York in terms of either its culture or its people.

Even with London, whose population is supposed to be more than 50% non-Caucasian, I never really felt as strong a sense of multi-ethnicality there as I did in New York City, which is truly an anthropological hotchpotch dappled with all shades and colours. I would go so far as to say that no one colour dominates the city’s racial or ethnic palette.


This, I suppose, is the legacy of its immigrant origins, despite the fact that the first settlers were mostly people of European descent.


The kiosk menu offered in different languages at the Ellis Island immigrant camps

3) If you’re not from NYC, the city’s MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) doesn’t like you

Compared to Hong Kong, London or Beijing, the NYC subway isn’t very tourist-friendly. Had I not studied my Lonely Planet map in detail a week prior to arriving in New York, I probably would have been floored by just how unclear and regionally esoteric some of the subway signs were.

Honestly, if you’re not from a place whose topography is shaped like a strip and demarcated according to ‘uptown/downtown’ distinctions (neither Hong Kong nor London nor Beijing qualify), then it’s unlikely for a mere ‘Uptown & Queens/Bronx’ or ‘Downtown/Brooklyn’ sign to be clarifying enough of an anchor when you need to get to goddamn ‘6th Ave-14 St’/ ‘103rd St’ / ‘2nd Ave’ or whatever.


Eh, what?

By the way, be warned: some stations have exits that could be as far apart as 1.5 miles away from each other – according to Google Maps, that’s a 26-minute walk by foot (96th St station, I’m looking at you!). Like, I love me some steady-state cardio, but doesn’t this configuration almost defeat the purpose of having multiple exits for one station (convenience)?

As a timely appendix to this point, the MTA has just opened up a new Second Avenue line, and with this, a fifth 96th St exit. Whaaat.

All I can say is that the Citymapper app is an absolute godsend, and I would definitely recommend using it in lieu of Google maps for the clarity of its instructions, the navigability of its maps, and the user-friendliness of its interface.


This is how the Citymapper app shows up on my iPhone 6S

4) NYC cuisine is like a college international student potluck dinner event where the Chinese kid whose dad owns a take-out diner always brings the most food

Everyone gushes over the culinary wonder that is the cream cheese and lox bagel, but seriously, did you know that cream cheese and jelly bagels with raisins are the real bomb? They are just.



Seriously, if you haven’t tried it, you haven’t lived, so get thee gone to the nearest bagel-selling café and have the folks smear soma’dat cheesy sugary amazingness between ‘em buns.


ALL THE BAGELS I HAD IN NYC NOM NOM NOM (I’ve got the cream cheese and jelly vs. cream cheese and lox showdown going on the top left and right)

And since we’re on the topic of food, I verified for myself that American portions are no joke (read: gargantuan), that a slice of creamy spinach and artichoke pizza may be the closest thing to a slice of heaven, and that Chinatown Manhattan is less of a concentrated touristy spot like Chinatown London than it is a sprawling settlement which covers the whole of Canal Street and reaches into the nooks and crannies of Mott, Bayard, Mulberry Streets etc.

In case you haven’t noticed, I have a thing for Chinatowns. My mother finds it shameful and evidence of ersatz patriotism, but exploring Chinatown is genuinely one of the key highlights of every new city I visit. I’m not ashamed to admit that the moment I dished off my Char Siu Beef Brisket thick rice noodles (lai fun) at Big Wong on Mott Street after a 3-hour morning trek around SoHo and its adjacent neighbourhoods was the moment when I sang a mental doxology to the God of Cookery.


Char Siu Beef Brisket Lai Fun at Big Wong – heads-up: they serve American sizes.

Had it been possible for me to extend my trip by a day or two, I would definitely have visited the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens as well, as I hear from my New Yorker friends that it has an even bigger Chinese community, and is mostly populated by Northern Chinese immigrants, as opposed to the Canton-dominant demographics in its Manhattan counterpart, which should be an interesting change of scene.


Manhattan Chinatown at night

Oh, have I mentioned that I love Chinatown(s) yet?

5) New Yorkers are, in general, a kind, humane, friendly, and no bullshit tribe of people

New Yorkers, in general, live up to the positive stereotype of being friendly and helpful, but what I like about their brand of friendliness is its no bullshit, problem-solution oriented approach.

Example 1:

I couldn’t believe my eyes when a lady cycling down Lexington Avenue actually waded her way across several lanes to ask several hapless looking tourists on a nearby pavement if she could help out with directions, which she provided in approximately 5 seconds before cycling off with a brisk nod.

Example 2:

The other time, I got out of the ‘116th St – Columbia University’ subway station not really knowing where to locate the campus entrance, and when I asked a burly man in a neon striped vest where the entrance to Columbia University was, he looked at me straight in the eye and said, “You’re standin’ right on it, ma’am.”

Example 3:

I can still recall a distinctly heart-warming incident that I witnessed on my first ever New York subway ride.

After a 16-hour transit flight, a 2-hour wait in line to go through customs and immigration, another 1.5-hour coach ride from JFK into the city proper, I still had to catch a train from the Port Authority bus terminal to my hostel. By then, I was already too tired, groggy and irritated to pay much attention to my new surroundings, let alone people-watch like the wannabe sociologist-poet I had set my mind to be for the week.

When I finally boarded the red line to Uptown, I was slightly put off by the ratty state of the train cabin (I later found out that not all lines are ratty, and that some, such as the yellow N-R-Q line or the grey S-L line, are a lot cleaner than the old ones like the red 1-2-3 / blue A-C-E lines), and just when I thought that my first impression of NYC could not get any more disappointing, a blonde, elegant-looking lady in her fifties hopped on from the Lincoln Center station with her family and sat down next to an African-American father and his son.


Not quite the facial expression today, I don’t think…

The kid was playing with a colour-changing cocktail ‘rock’, and the lady, looking on with a smile, made a nice comment about how pretty the rock was and struck up a casual conversation with the dad. Instead of giving her a polite response, the kid abruptly turned away from his lady neighbour, clutched onto the arm of his dad and seemed to bury his face into daddy’s jacket lining out of shyness.

For a moment, an awkward silence hung in the air, and just when everyone thought this to be the end of a one-sided exchange, I noticed that the kid was fumbling around in his dad’s jacket pocket all this time, from which he ultimately produced a colour-changing cocktail rock identical to the one he’s been holding in his hands.

Turning to the lady beside him, he asked with a smile, “Do you want it?”

She, of course, was pleasantly surprised by this kind gesture, and despite her objections to taking the kid’s gift, the dad eventually convinced her into accepting it with a paternal earnestness that made the incident all the more memorable for me: “My son would like you to have it, ma’am, so please keep it.”

By the time the lady and her family reached their station and wished the dad and son a very Merry Christmas, I found myself smiling just as much as the lady’s daughter, who, together with me on the side, witnessed the whole exchange in a state of happy silence.

As Chicken Soup for the Soul as this anecdote may sound, seeing this bolstered my belief in the goodness of humanity, and made me reflect, not without a tinge of wistfulness, on how a similar situation would almost never happen on the Hong Kong metro, where everyone is too hot and cramped and screen-absorbed to take note of everyone else.


A sticker I spotted on a roadside pavement near Washington Square Park

6) NYC isn’t all about shopping, and if you think so, then you need to come to Asia

I don’t know where the image of New York as a shopaholic’s haven first came about, but it’s actually not quite true, at least not to the extent propounded by films like Sex and the City and Devil Wears Prada or by fashion magazines such as Vogue and Glamour, or at least not in comparison to other cosmopolitan cities in the East like Shanghai, Bangkok (you’d be surprised by the sheer size of their malls!), Seoul, or indeed, Hong Kong.

Sure, there’s Broadway and Times Square and Saks Fifth Avenue et al, but relative to the whole of New York City and its less jazzy, commercial parts, I’d say that the overall emphasis on luxury spending isn’t quite as in-your-face as mass media would have us believe.


This is an example of misleading PR

And make no mistake, this is one of the things that I really like about NYC. I mean, I didn’t even notice the ZARA store in the Wall Street area until I was walking back from Trinity Church on the other side of Broadway – and anyone who knows me knows that I’m not one to overlook ZARA stores.

Even with the scenic marmite that is Times Square which everyone says you either love or hate, I noticed that a lot of its flashy neon placards were in fact adverts or billboards for theatre shows, which I’d say is cultural enough in substance to compensate for the gaudiness of its display?

Unfashionably, I liked Times Square in its newest incarnation. I had no objection to the Disney security corps or the ESPN Zone or the loitering tourists or the kids crowded outside the MTV studio. And whereas others felt mocked and diminished by the square’s storming of the sense and detected malevolence or Promethean impudence in the molten progress of the news tickers and in the fifty-foot visages that looked down from vinyl billboards and in the twinkling shouted advertisements for drinks and Broadway musicals, I always regarded these shimmers and vapours as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city’s pigeons – as natural, humble sources of iridescences.”

(p. 99, Netherland)

To O’Neill’s protagonist, then, the beauty of Times Square lies precisely in the psychedelic pell-mell it imposes on the human senses, which he embraces as a welcome assault. Ungainly as it may seem to some, the landmark stands markedly comfortable in its status as a kaleidoscopic artifice pulsating at the heart of Manhattan, from where a cosmopolitan energy flows into the veins of the city to charge it with life.


Times Square in its fluorescent glory

So there you have it! The 6 things that most stood out to me about this legendary place.

Granted, there’s much more about NYC I’ve learnt than the space of a blog post would allow for sharing, but the best way to discover New York (or any other city) is to do just that – set aside a week, go there and explore the heck out of it on your own terms. I, for one, am very proud to have accomplished this milestone pilgrimage as a step closer to my goal of traveling through all 50 states in America (1 down, 49 more to go wooooo).


Yep, so this happened to me…

And for all the transit delays (courtesy of Air China, I’ve learnt that 1-hour transits are a strict no-go, unless you want to sprint like a madwoman to the boarding gate 5 minutes before it closes, or just miss your second leg altogether and have to be put up at a makeshift airport hotel for an extra night in Beijing), wardrobe mishaps (owing to miscalculations about December weather in NY, I left my thermal socks at home – big mistake), and cartographic confusions (even with the help of a GPS, apparently I have difficulty corresponding what’s left and right on the map with what’s left and right on the streets), let’s just say that there are worse ways of wrapping up a year and looking forward to a new one.

On that note, Happy 2017, everyone!

Onwards, upwards and keep the passion.


[Photo credits: TIME, The Economist, The Real Deal, Wedding Spots, NY Post, Wall Street Insanity, NY Daily News, Slant Magazine, Jeremiah Cox]

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