In 2014, I traveled to New York City for the first time in my life.
I took a cab from JFK airport to my hotel near Times Square. When I opened the cab’s door, I see colorful bright lights shining from the LCD screens in Times Square and I looked up to the glowing advertisements and the towering spectacle in front of me. It was like a fairytale.
I continued my vacation by visiting iconic spots in the city. It’s like walking straight into a movie. I felt like Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf when I climbed the stairs of The Met; I felt like the exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History could suddenly wake up like in Night at the Museum; I felt like Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress when I walk by Tiffany and Co. Everything was perfect through rose-colored glasses, and I dreamt of going back when I packed my bags to leave New York.
Last year, I learned that I am going to experience New York once again when I got accepted to Columbia. While I dreamt about the wonders of the city, people warned me to be careful. “New York’s a nice place to visit, but not a nice place to live,” most of them said. And, boy, were they true.
During my first weeks living as a temporary New York resident, I hated the city. I hated how smelly the air is during the summer. I hated how you can’t step into puddles of water on the street because you don’t know what it actually is (it could be urine, for all we know). I hated how direct its people could be sometimes. I hated how there are so many unspoken rules (like how you should put your backpack down in the subway) and how sometimes people could talk you down for not following them (I once saw a passenger being yelled at). I hated the rats in the subway.
Everyone was right, I thought. But when I actually got in and experience the city in my own terms, I began to see what’s beautiful beneath the dumps. After weeks of feeling empty all by myself, I decided, screw it, I’m going to reach out. I participated in clubs and activities on- and off-campus, I volunteered in boroughs as far as Queens (I live in Harlem), and I even joined a dating app (it was a big mistake—please don’t do it).
Through reaching out, the key value that I learned is that New York is a very big city and it is very diverse. When I talk about “diversity,” I don’t mean it as a mere buzzword. By “diversity,” I’m talking about meeting people from all walks of life—the kinds of people that I wouldn’t meet if I didn’t live in New York. I became best friends with people from countries as far as South Africa, with religions as unfamiliar as Judaism, with theatre majors, tarot card readers, and other unconventional occupations. I got exposed to different points of views and I listened as they tell their whole life stories to me—these are lives that I will never experience. I became more appreciative of their cultures and their ways of living—just like the old Indonesian saying, “tak kenal maka tak sayang” (you won’t love something until you get to know it).
And when I understand the value of diversity, I began to understand that the things I hate about New York are just a testament to the city’s multitude of personalities. For example, time goes faster than everywhere else in New York and everyone keeps up to its speed. This is why people seem so direct: Why waste time on niceties when time is money? Or another example: New York is very crowded during rush hour, and if you don’t put down your backpack in the subway, space is wasted—your backpack’s space could be a space for another passenger who, due to your backpack, has to wait 10 minutes for another train.
It’s mindblowing; New York is a city of 8 million people, with 8 million different lives and stories. We’re all cramped in a space incomparable to our population (Manhattan itself is only 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide). We have to make do with what we have, and that is why the city is so frustrating at first. But, think about it—you are living together with millions of other different people, going through the same New York problems as you do (delayed subway systems, rats, etc), hustling together in this confusing place. There’s so much you can learn from the people, and there’s so much you can give back.
After a year of living in New York, I packed my bags to go back to my home country for three months. When I passed through Queensboro Bridge and saw the skyline getting smaller and smaller, I finally felt that feeling you have when you’re truly in love with someone (or in this case, something): As the tip of the Empire State Building inch closer towards the horizon, I finally felt how it’s like to be afraid to lose New York.
This post is written as part of a one-week mini bootcamp in my GO-SQUADS Tech 3.0 internship in GO-JEK. To learn more about my experiences, keep an eye on @lifeatgojek on Instagram.