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24 Hours in New York Concrete Jungle

In the "Cult of Escapism": 24 Hours in New York Concrete Jungle

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

24 Hours in New York Concrete Jungle

On December 22nd, I landed in New York for a 24 hour layover on my way to the Philippines (where my parents live) and it felt like I had traveled into the future. The jungle still had a hold on my habits and mentality and I got off to an awkward start and had the following conversation with my sister, who met me at the airport:

“Do you have hot water in your apartment?”
My sister looked at me like I had asked if I should put my left shoe on my left foot.
“Uh, yeah Jack, we have hot water.”
Of course. I was in the concrete jungle*, not the green one.

I hadn’t thought about the question before I asked it, but from then on, I was careful not to ask more stupid questions and to refrain from waving at every person that I passed on the street. At one point, a busload of kids passed and I almost instinctively waved but caught myself – that's not friendly in Brooklyn, Jack, it's creepy.


I wouldn't say the day in NY was overwhelming, but I definitely experienced minor reverse culture shock. Here are some things I noticed about Brooklyn, after living in a town of 4,000 people in an indigenous reservation in Panama for a year and a half.

Everyone walks fast
I almost lost my sister leaving the airport as I ambled along at a tropical pace. The surrounding people, recognizing my weakness, wasted no time pushing past me, stealing all of my possessions and spitting on me. Not really. But after she backtracked to get me, I asked my sister if we should be running like everyone else to catch the train. She gave me another, “What are you, a moron?” kind of look and replied that no one was running, they were just walking the way people walk here. Shit. Now I know what all those Midwestern kids were complaining about when I was at Boston University (“No one holds the door” “What's the big rush?” Why is everyone so skinny?”).

Everyone speaks English
You're welcome, by the way, for pointing that out. It's not that I was surprised to hear people speaking English, it was just weird that the ambient language was so much easier to understand. I speak Spanish and can understand ambient conversation in Panama if I listen, but it's much easier to ignore. On the train in New York, I felt like I was forced into everyone's conversations just because I could understand them. Which brings me to...

People are more intense
I don't know if this is just New York, or all of America, but everyone seemed to have a big personality. And I finally understand that European stereotype that Americans are loud. Sitting near a group of men having a conversation on the train, I sincerely wondered if they were drunk. (I will note here, however, that while Americans may be louder, public transport in America is much quieter – no blasting radios or cell phones, not as much incessant honking). It also seemed like everyone was trying hard to have their own fashion, their own opinions.

In Panama, I've always been struck at how hard people try to be like one another and how obvious they are about it. I'm often called out for not wearing similar clothing and not having certain common possessions. Like, “Why are you wearing sandals and not fake Crocs? That's not what everybody else does!” In the States, and more specifically, in Brooklyn, everyone seems to try hard to be their own person and makes a big show of their effort. (Ironically, most people end up looking extremely similar anyway, but continue to make a big deal about how different they are).

So stylish
Having said everything I just said, people in Brooklyn are pretty stylish, even if it's all the same style. I felt like kind of scrub most of the time.

Blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics abound! I love that about New York. Panama is pretty diverse on paper – nationally about 20% black, five indigenous groups, the rest Latinos and a smattering of whites and Asians – but most of the black people are in one region (Colón), the indigenous are concentrated in their own autonomous regions, or close by, and the rest of the non-Latinos are, as I said, smattered. It was refreshing to see the diversity.


I had what to most city dwelling Americans would seem like a pretty typical night out: happy hour, dinner and then hanging in an apartment, drinking and talking. But everything excited me. Pizza! Buffalo wings! Beer that doesn’t taste like urine!

Seriously. The food in Panama, country-wide, is BORING. And there are maybe three bars in the whole country that play decent music, at a volume that allows you to actually talk with people and I've only found one of them (and it's like nine hours from where I live). And the cheap national beers, which are often the only options, really do taste like urine. Sometimes, to save money, I just pee into an empty bottle and bring that to the bar. So I enjoyed the hell out of Sam Adams and Brooklyn Lager and other real beers. And did I mention buffalo wings?

These physical pleasures were definitely nice, but the highlight of New York, without a doubt, was seeing my sister and some of my close friends. I’ve spent my entire life on the move, but I’ve learned that with true friends, no matter how much time passes between reunions, the friendship stays intact. This was again true with the seven close friends that met me in New York. After some smiley greetings and gushing ‘I missed yous,’ it was straight back to the stories, gossip and dirty jokes that I expect from my close friends.

Now, stick with me, cause I'm going to unnecessarily try and make this into a nerdy metaphor: it's like Han Solo in Star Wars: Episode 6 – he may have been frozen for a few weeks, but when they freed him, he was a little cold, a little weak, but otherwise the same old Han. With close friends, an extended absence is like cryogenically freezing the relationship and sticking it on the wall of Jabba's palace – it recovers quickly.

The nerdy metaphor is now over. Was that too much?

Let's move on to the philisophical, “What this means for Peace Corps Volunteers” part of the post.

After stateside trips, many volunteers have returned with the same report: “It was so good to see my friends and family and to go out like I used to, and I miss that, but it’ll still be there when I get back. Nothing has really changed.” For a lot of volunteers (myself included), each week is entirely different and there’s always a trip or a project or something coming up in the next months. Add to that new perspectives and either personal growth or slow mental collapse and we volunteers are in a constant state of change.

And life's not like that for most office-bound, stateside working professionals, which isn’t necessarily bad, but undeniably different. Part of the Peace Corps challenge is living an inconsistent, often uncomfortable, life. So for many, when they visit the States, they realize that that stable, familiar life is still there if they ever want to go back. Mostly, this helps volunteers appreciate how interesting our life is down here, without feeling left out.

I miss my people back in the States. But luckily for me, most will be there when I get back, dressing classy, walking quickly and spitting on outsiders.

*Where dreams are made of.


At January 19, 2012 at 3:50 AM , Blogger Lara said...

Great post! Funny to think of culture shock in NYC after all your time in city life.


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