“I might’ve lived my life in a dream, but I swear this is real”
~ R.E.M. (from Leaving New York)
New York is a very special place. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, but it also has a very special personal significance to me. There are a handful of events in my life which really shaped me as a person. These are events which, had they not happened, I would be a significantly different person today. Many of those events are described on this website such as the one time I went for a swim and almost didn’t come back, while others are not, either because I haven’t got around to it yet, or because the content is not suitable for public viewing (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more). While I will make no attempt to describe it in detail here, the year-and-a-bit that I spent living in New York is one of those life-shaping events.
My first visit to New York occurred on March 20th 2007, during my 5-month odyssey through Latin America. I know what you’re thinking, “there may be many Spanish-speaking people in New York Daniel, but it is not in Latin America”. This is true. In the middle of this odyssey, I had a half-time break during which I traveled to New York among a few other US destinations. In fact, I came to New York via Boston on the chinatown bus – only $15. It dropped me off in the middle of a very dense chinatown where everyone was speaking cantonese, and all of the restaurant and shop signs were in chinese. For a moment, I felt like I back in Hong Kong.
I immediately warmed to the city. It was everything I imagined it to be, and more. It was surreal – I felt like I was walking around in a movie set. It really was a city that never slept, which suited a nocturnal being such as myself. The constant activity of the place was energizing, empowering even, I felt like I could do anything, anytime I wanted. And the food! Oh, the glorious food! On three consecutive nights, I dined at Per Se, Daniel, and Jean Georges (all of which are now 3-star Michelin restaurants) and during the day I just wrote down long lists of sights to see, and saw them. In fact, there was only one location on my list that I didn’t get around to – Columbia University. When I left, after four jam-packed days, I was exhausted but very satisfied. I wanted more, but I was also sad because my only real shot at living there had passed me by when Columbia rejected me for their PhD program in Sustainable Development.
Curiously enough, on May 4th that year, I learned that I was accepted to a masters degree at Columbia. I was ecstatic, moreso because I had actually visited New York and knew what the city was like. I returned on a warm August day under slightly unusual circumstances. I had just been to the world inline speed skating championships in Cali, Colombia and was not only very tanned, but very distraught because I had had the misfortune of having my laptop, camera, and ipod stolen from my (locked) hotel room. I arrived at 1am on a Monday morning, and by about 4pm, I had almost all of those items replaced, and then some. The feeling of being able to do anything, amplified by being at a university that I honestly never thought I was good enough to get into, was returning.
Leaving after that year was difficult. On the surface, the decision should have been an obvious one – I had been offered the opportunity to speed skate professionally, full-time, and train for a shot at the Olympic Games. But still, I hesitated, and it wasn’t until a few forceful “you must go” prods from my Columbia professors, did I really wake up and make the right decision. Before I left, I held a party in the form of a (surprisingly) well-attended karaoke night. That’s when I really realized how much I would miss the place. The city is amazing – I loved it even before I knew ANYONE there, but now I had made many friends, and friends who I may never see again owing to the transient nature of the place. It was never quite this bad with Melbourne, but that’s probably because, being Australian, there is always the (very likely correct) assumption that I will eventually return. With a place like New York (and the difficult visa requirements of the US), you just never know.
I’ve been back twice now, both times for brief visits. Leaving the city after these occasions was surprisingly the most difficult. Why? Perhaps it is because the brief nature of them, and the necessarily rushed efforts to see as many people as I possibly could in an impossibly short space of time reminded me of just how brief and fleeting life really is, and how important it is to really cherish every moment (trust me, when you’re sharing food with a gorgeous girl for what could only be two hours tops if you’re lucky, you learn to cherish every moment 😉 ). Perhaps it is the realization that you didn’t just make a bunch of new friends in the crazy city, but that you really meant something to them (or at least enough for them to appear ostensibly happy to see you).
Another thing that perhaps entices me to the city, is that it feels like “home”. A long time ago, at my first Amnesty International Australia Annual General Meeting (try saying that ten times in a hurry), I was sitting, chatting casually to the former president of AIA, Cathy Kingston, and she told me that I was a “misfit”, and that it was ok to be a misfit. (Incidentally, this is another one of those defining moments of my life). I had never felt that I really “fit in” anywhere. I never fit in in Hong Kong (where my relatives would constantly berate me for not knowing how to speak Chinese even though I did), and I didn’t really fit in in Australia either (although in several specific groups, namely MUMS and MUCAAS, I very nearly did). In New York I was probably the least-alone in my mis-fitted-ness, and that was probably a major contributing factor to why I felt so at home there.
I grew up in Hong Kong, a city of life which feels, in many ways, much like New York. But Hong Kong today is nothing like the Hong Kong I grew up in, and I’m not talking about all the new buildings. I’m not even talking about the switch in sovereignty from Britain to China. I’m referring to the fact that almost all of my friends from when I lived in Hong Kong have moved elsewhere, especially the ones whom I would consider close. Maybe I’m simply afraid that New York will become like another Hong Kong, another ghost town, because I recognize the transient nature of the populations in both cities. That transience, the way that the city seems to live and breathe and circulate with people as its nourishing blood, will always make it extremely difficult to leave.