Completely non-representative reflections on New York

December 18, 2007, [MD]

I have only visited New York once before, a few days in the summer a few years ago. Both then and now my time was spent trying to meet up with a few friends living here, and pounding the sidewalk in Manhattan to get an idea of the city. This time I was hoping to get a chance to venture outside Manhattan, especially visit the “real Chinatown” in Flushing (as opposed to the largely tourist-oriented one in Manhattan), but only two days and several people to meet didn’t allow me.

The first thing that struck me upon coming to New York this time, was the incredible security everywhere. A very frustrating thing is that there is apparently no place to store your luggage in downtown New York… I did some research before I came, and there was supposed to be a shop near Macy’s and Penn Station, but it had closed, and in Penn Station they would only accept it if I held a ticket (why? Will this foil a terrorist? Why not just raise the rates and make some money off me?) I understand that cities, especially ones like New York and London, are busy changing their streetscapes and procedures to fend off terrorism, some of it I can understand, much of it is ridiculous. But clearly, a world city such as NY should have a place to store luggage… Charge me for it, X-ray it (like they do at Liverpool stn. in London), but give me the option. For me, who arrived with a big backpack and a daypack, and wasn’t meeting my friend before 6PM that night, this was horrible. Luckily my Norwegian friend doing an internship in a swanky law firm downtown Manhattan came to my rescue (of course security wouldn’t even let me in to the building, even though he called down and let them know, so he had to come down and pick it up from me. Must have been a bit of an incongruous site to see him in his nice suit and tie with my dirty huge backpack that has been around the world).

Walking around Manhattan I also noticed the incredible amount of people doing lowly service jobs. I wonder what is the name of this category, but somehow to me guards and security personnel, people directing traffic, doormen and so on are in a different category from other service people - partly perhaps because there are so few of them in Norway. Indeed, many things about New York (read Manhattan) made me think of capitals in developing countries, like Jakarta. They are full of incredibly rich and swankily dressed people (waiting for my friend at Grand Central at 6PM I saw more well-dressed people walk past me in 10 minutes then I ever have), and people waiting on them. There are so obviously two classes of people, and as a friend of mine who used to live here pointed out, the people who “serve” can certainly not afford to live in Manhattan or anywhere near it.

There is an incredible police presence here. In Norway or Toronto there can be days between every time you see a police officer (except for campus police or transit police in Toronto - both of which don’t exist in Norway), but here they are on every street corner. There’s also a fair amount of traffic directing going on, which honestly I cannot figure out. It was the same thing in Indonesia, with almost every major intersection having a few people directing traffic during rush hour, except every hour was rush hour in Jakarta, and honestly cars mostly respected traffic signals even when there were no cops there, partly because it’s hard to dart across six-seven lanes of oncoming traffic. The only major difference was that the police would stop you from jaywalking (sneaking through the cars) and force you to go half a block down and across a huge long bridge), which did little good and just got everyone annoyed (it’s great to read that jaywalking - crossing the streets outside of a marked crossing - is not illegal in Toronto). Here, jaywalking is clearly not a big issue, since I’ve seen about three police officers doing it themselves (crossing a pedestrian crossing on a red light). And they didn’t exactly seem to be in hot pursuit of anyone.

I spent a lot of time in Russia and China before I came to North America for the first time, which has led to some funny insights. When I went to China and saw their modern buildings, I thought that they had taken “Western” designs and adapted them to their own ways, but when I came to Canada, some streetscapes reminded me incredibly of China (and I am not talking about Chinatown, but high street), because the building styles for skyscrapers was incredibly similar. To me, it seemed that Canada was copying China, but of course, chronologically it’s (for now) the other way around. Gigantic malls, and a lot of the big US fast food brands I’d only ever seen in Shanghai and Bangkok, not in Europe! Similarly, when I first went to Buffalo and Pittsburgh, they reminded me a lot of Russia, both because of wooden dilapidated houses in some residential streets, but also because of their huge brick 1930’s NY style skyscrapers. Of course, Stalin wanted to imitate New York and had the Seven Sisters built, one of which houses the Moscow University, and for example the Buffalo City Hall reminded me of them a lot.

It is funny having been fed with North American popular culture all your life, and when you come here there are some things that are so similar, and others that are very different. Americans films prepared me well for the idea of dense cities like Manhattan and San Francisco, but I did not realize that this was an absolute exception, and that most of America is strip-malls and sprawl - a small city I visited in the California valley was made up of almost only one-storey apartments that looked to me like the small vacation apartments belonging to hotels in Spain. When I wanted to buy some potato chips, we had to get in our car and drive to Wal-Mart quite a while away. I asked if there weren’t enough inhabitants in the area we lived to justify a kiosk, and my host answered that the zoning laws prevented it, people didn’t want a noisy business as their neighbor. It’s funny, in Norway we highlight “very close to shops, school, kindergarten, etc” in our housing ads. My house is across the street from a small shopping plaza, and that’s a huge selling point.

When I first came to Canada and saw yellow school buses (in Norway, school children ride on normal buses available to everyone, but most just walk or bike to school), I thought “that’s exactly like in the Simpson’s!” In New York I see fancy apartment lobbies and door guards, and think “Jerry Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City”. Much of the cityscape seems very industrial to me, the subway looks like a dismantled factory, and in yesterday’s grey hail, and with huge wallowing smoke clouds coming out from different openings in walls, sometimes the whole experience reminded me of something out of Blade Runner or Batman. Their money and their subway map reminds me of Monopoly…

One hypothesis, which I don’t have anywhere near enough evidence for yet, is that New York is more cosmopolitan than Toronto. With cosmopolitan, I mean the European ideal (perhaps more ideal than actual?) of “world citizens” who speak several languages, are interested in world affairs, and where you can go to the newspaper kiosk and buy magazines in 30 languages (certainly in my little town in Norway with 25.000 inhabitants and very few immigrants, we can easily obtain newspapers in at least 15-20 languages, and I often bought El Pais, Le Monde, Spiegel and The Guardian when I was in high school). Toronto is supposed to be the most international city in the world, and certainly the array of people inhabiting it is dizzying, there is almost nothing you cannot find in Toronto. However, it’s all so compartmentalized. If you want Chinese books, you have to go to Chinatown. If you want to watch a Hindi movie, there are three Bollywood theatres that cater to you (all in the suburbs of course). Why is it that when I go the biggest mainstream bookstore in Toronto, they don’t have a single book in Chinese (except for learning it), in fact they barely have books in French… And the suburban cinemas with 15 screens could certainly afford to offer a Chinese or Indian film once in a while, to reflect the people living around them.

Also many language groups in Toronto don’t like talking their mother tongues to people from other countries. This had me puzzled at first. I speak Chinese fluently, and if I meet a Chinese person, it’s natural for me to speak to them in Chinese. This isn’t because I want to practice or need a language exchange person to learn, but because that’s an efficient way of communicating (it’s also not to make a comment about their English level!)… However, in Canada many Chinese will consistently answer me back in English, and refuse to engage with me (much more common among younger people born in Canada than with recent immigrants from mainland China in the cafes, who can barely speak English)… I ate in three different cafes yesterday, and in all of them, it turned out that all the staff communicated with each other in Spanish, and most of the customers gave their orders in Spanish. I gave my first order in English, because I didn’t realize this, but subsequently I addressed the staff in Spanish, and they replied in Spanish as if it was the most natural thing in the world (which it was!). I don’t know why, but I have never felt comfortable speaking Spanish in some of the Latin American stores in Kensington Market for example, having a feeling that it would be like “showing off”, or a bit weird…

Also, on one subway ride (highly anecdotal!) I saw one woman reading a large Russian glossy weekly, a man intently studying what appeared to be the Koran with Arabic and Latin transliteration or explanation alongside it, and an older man reading a Chinese newspaper. In general, almost everyone were reading something, which was quite nice as well. You rarely hear other languages being spoken on public transit in Toronto, and while I have seen a few Chinese newspapers, I have barely ever seen one in another language (although they exist in abundance - there are hundreds of free weeklies in different languages published in Toronto!)… A friend of mine in Toronto has also been talking about how there is a huge pressure to communicate in English in Toronto, and that some people will avoid speaking different languages in public etc. It is interesting to think that this might be more prevalent in the US, with its “melting pot” strategy, than in Canada, with its “fruit bowl” approach (at least that’s what we learnt in English class in Norwegian secondary school). Of course - the US doesn’t have a federal language law, English became the national language kind of by default (and there are even some municipalities near the Mexican border that conduct their city council meetings in Spanish), whereas language is a huge and touchy topic in Canada.

I have some more thoughts on multilingualism, but I’ll save them for a separate post, this has already become long enough. In the meantime, I completed a wonderful Indian meal on 28th and Park Ave, thanks Butterfly.

(Update aboard the plane: the shops in terminal 7 at JFK didn’t carry a single foreign language publication, which is actually quite a feat.)


Stian Håklev December 18, 2007 Toronto, Canada
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