My brother got married in Puerto Rico, and timing and finances dictated that we could not fly home to Washington State before heading to the wedding, but instead needed to grade final exams in Beijing and then get on a flight for San Juan. When Chris heard that our layover would be in New York, he had a brilliant suggestion: why not stop for a few days so that I could meet my literary agent and publisher, as well as take in the sights.
I’ve never felt much connection with New York City. Although my Dutch forbears landed at Ellis Island, New York was barely a pit stop; they immediately headed to the small towns of the Midwest, eager to snatch up farmland in the Dakotas. A generation later, they had settled Washington State and California, making me firmly a West Coast girl.
My images of New York City life came from watching movies or TV shows like Sex and the City or Friends where people lived in loft apartments and took yellow taxis to fancy jobs wearing high heels. The New York I saw on big screens or little ones did not match my own lived experience. It was like a window into a life completely foreign and different from my own. I come from the America of minivans parked in two-car garages of split-level ranch houses surrounded by green grass and perhaps even a fence.
My Chinese students often ask me about New York. Their view of America is shaped by the movies they see, and New York figures—disproportionately I told them—in American movies. I would gently tell them that most Americans don’t live such a lifestyle.
I found quite quickly that we could not afford even the tiniest of hotel rooms in Manhattan. But we found a lovely two-bedroom suite in a B&B in Brooklyn that seemed just our speed. As the kids and I walked along Coney Island Avenue shopping for a few necessities, we found ourselves hearing different languages every time we wondered into a new shop. We were hungry, so I asked some lovely Georgian-speaking ladies at the pharmacy we had entered about local restaurants.
She told us that this little Brooklyn neighborhood had Hasidic Jews on one side of the street and Pakistani Muslims on the other. We found a corner Jewish restaurant and sat down happily with falafel pitas. At the table next to us was a Hasidic father eating with his three children, their beautiful dark curly hair tucked under yarmulkes and the beginnings of ear curls at the sides.
I could see my kids, tired as they were, were stimulated by this explosion of language and culture and diversity that they had never known America to have. My kids are well traveled. They think nothing of Indonesian street food in Bali or roti in Thailand or most normal of all, noodles in China. But this was America. And the family sitting next to us with their white shirts, black pants, and prayer shawls were American just like them.
New York is much more connected to me that I had previously thought. New York has played a special role, bringing in cultural communities with their culture and language intact, but allowing them the structure of American freedom in which to live. New York with its Little Italy and Chinatown and Hasidic Jews and Russian bookstores is ground zero for assimilating the immigrants that have always made America what it is. Later, even generations later, New York sends these Americans into the heartland.
And I now see, since coming to New York, that the small-town American summers with swimming lessons and Vacation Bible School and beach barbeques that I have so carefully crafted so that my children would be rooted in their American identity have shown them a white, homogenous, Christian, middle class America. This trip to New York has enlarged their vision of America and therefore, of who they are as Americans.
So we will be back. As Andrew said, “New York is the greatest city in the world!”