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First days in New York: culture shock and overwhelmedness

Seeing New York for the first time (and, for some reason, Brooklyn in particular) felt like stepping into… a fictional world. New York is completely unlike anywhere else. It’s a place that is commonly experienced by the rest of the world through fiction (or news events that are, for me at least, usually remote enough to be considered on a similar level).

NYC is Sesame St. Brooklyn, with its fire-escaping apartment buildings, fire hydrants, rubbish-strewn streets, yellow school buses and kids playing in the road brought on this impression on forcibly and immediately. It is Gotham City (albeit a toned-down version these days and more brightly lit). It is the world of Taxi Driver, King Kong, Annie Hall, Ghostbusters – countless other films (and novels and works of art but film & television are the most visually complete and culturally insinuating). Fantastically unlikely things happen in New York.

Take the subway. New Yorkers take it every day and probably nothing that happens down there surprises them anymore. But New York is so culturally full that it oozes out of every crack. An elderly man on the platform playing steel drums to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean (kindly take a moment to imagine that). Three guys jumping onto the L train with whatever the 21st century version of a boombox is and breakdancing on the moving train: climbing and swinging and flipping from the railings, spinning on the floor. A woman plays Pure Imagination from Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory beautifully on her violin. Little bronze figures (the art of Tom Otterness) pop up in corners around Manhattan stations – figures crawling under gates or running hand in hand. I am certain that mysteries and inexplicable events are happening down half of New York’s shaded side streets.

[Post-script: I just found out about Music Under New York but that makes the subway no less magical.]

I recently read E. B. White’s Here Is New York, which is a beautiful beautiful piece of writing and my favourite of his essays that I’ve encountered so far. It is a perfect introduction to New York, capturing its atmosphere and quirks with incredible perspicacity. Sixty-four years on, what he describes is still New York.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”

Aside from the surreality of arriving in a place that is, to my mind, largely a work of fiction, there are enough surprising little cultural differences to make one acutely aware that you are in fact, a stranger in this land.

Before coming here, I had thought that Australian and American culture were similar enough that the idea of “culture shock” never really occurred to me. We are certainly surrounded with enough American culture and entertainment for it to have a certain degree of familiarity. But I was quite wrong.

Perhaps the disconcert is amplified by the fact that I am not an experienced traveller, and that I’m travelling alone. I don’t remember experiencing it when travelling with my family (perhaps because all the hard parts were left up to my parents). When I went to Peru on a school trip for three weeks, we expected it to be vastly different, and it was. However, the security of being surrounded by people from home provides enough comforting familiarity to lessen culture shock.

In New York, culture shock manifested in a few different ways. First, there are the people.

And boy, are there a lot of people.

I really didn’t expect to feel so disconcerted being surrounded by all the various kinds of American accent. Getting off the plane at LA before heading to NY, the prerecorded voice over the loudspeaker was jarringly and surprisingly wrong.

I also wasn’t prepared for the ethnic diversity. I know, it’s New York – there are people from everywhere. So many people all jammed in together. It really brought home the fact that Australia is nowhere near as “multicultural” as we think it is. The jump from South Melbourne, a very white neighbourhood, to Bushwick, which has that interesting mix of immigrants and young artists, also took some getting used to.

Then there are the minor cultural norms that can provide daily moments of little embarrassments or confusions. Assumed knowledge includes: how to catch the subway; when and how to tip; coffee ‘to go’ or ‘to stay’; different words for how you want your coffee or your eggs; ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown’; nickels, dimes and quarters. Small visual jolts of difference include the garbage bags lining the streets (and the associated smell in the heat); old people sitting on crates or stoops outside during the evenings; the hand and walk pedestrian lights; fire escapes, the architecture. Not just seeing the famous landmarks like the Chrysler Building or the Empire State, but the ordinary buildings that have such a unique style, like nowhere else in the world.

New York has also been a pretty intense place to start in the U.S. because it is the most of everything. It is the most populated city in the U.S. and the most densely populated, it has the largest transit system and it supposedly contains the best in every field you can think of. It certainly contains the most dreams. New York is a pretty overwhelming place.

Overwhelmedness was a bit of a theme for the first week or so. The muchness of everything. All of the people with all of their dreams all trying to work hard to get somewhere. Seeing so much art in so many museums. Being hit again by the sheer multitude of people and art and books and information. Feeling so small that a little part of me considered becoming a hermit for the rest of my life, just to escape it all and pretend the world was no larger than a room.

…Thankfully, that feeling didn’t last.

Bring it on, life.

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