*Today I’m sharing a unique guest post from my friend Sophie at Sophie With a Blog. I’ve lived in New York City for seven years, but I can’t tell you what it’s like to grow up here or how it’s changed. So I asked Sophie, a native New Yorker, to share her colorful stories about what it’s really like growing up in a city that many people romanticize. Enjoy! -Luxe*
Hi, I’m Sophie and I’ve lived in New York City my whole life.
I walk fast, talk fast, and am really impatient but that’s nothing special around here. I don’t wear all black, smoke cigarettes with a side of Starbucks, or think that this city is the best place to live.
In fact, I could think of sunnier and less polluted destinations where the living is slow and the people are less hardened…I mean, driven. And yet here I am, still living in the same city with no plans to move elsewhere…yet.
A lot has changed in this city and I have a lot of feelings about it. Do you ever wonder why the world places NYC on a pedestal? Yeah, me too. To make sense of this whole thing I decided to make a list, as one does when feeling confused…and it ultimately led to me writing this letter. Specifically, a letter in which I list five things I hate about this city. It wasn’t easy but it did provide some clarification, or at least that’s what I’m going to tell myself. If you’re curious, read on as I give you the 4-1-1.
Dear New York,
1) I hate that you have a specialized high school system, and I got bamboozled into thinking it was going to be special.
One day in the 7th grade, I learned that there was this “special” high school you could attend if you were smart enough and wanted to get into a good college. I was obsessed with doing well in school and wanted to get in. My parents weren’t “tiger” parents or “helicopter parents” by any means, but I think the pressure that I put on myself was from knowing how much my parents struggled in China. Not only because they were poor but because they were limited by their middle school education.
So my mom did some digging around Chinatown and found that there was this tutoring center that specialized in the exam. The tutoring lessons would cost over $1000. More than our rent. Will go into that later.
At the time my mom was making about $8 an hour (minimum wage was $6 in 2003) as a home attendant. My dad was making about $900 a month working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. On paper they couldn’t afford these lessons, but they’re frugal and saved like it was their job, so they made it happen.
Ba-da-bing-ba-da-boom, my parents got a return on their investment and my Saturdays at the tutoring center was not for nothing. I got accepted into my second choice, Brooklyn Technical High School.
On my first day, I came home and cried. Remember that scene in Mean Girls where Cady is eating lunch in the bathroom?
I didn’t do that, but that would have been less embarrassing than eating alone. The school was huge, both in its size and in the number of students which was over 4000 at the time. Everyone seemed to know each other from their Brooklyn middle schools. I lived and went to school in Manhattan, which is the suburban teen movie equivalent to moving to another town and starting over. The problem with a large school and having to split lunch into four different periods, is that even when you make friends one semester, you might not see them at all the next. Unless, you had the same commute or lived in the same neighborhood. This didn’t create the most stable or consistent social support network. So oftentimes, I felt alone.
You might be thinking, what about hanging out after school? It seemed like everyone was always running off to go home and do their homework. Everything felt SO serious, as if a single bad grade could lead to losing the college choice of your dreams. Everything was college focused. We even picked a major to focus on for the last two years of high school. I was interested in fashion and writing for a magazine, but nothing related was offered as an option. So by the time I was 16, I was encouraged to put myself in a box, rigged by the fact that the options were limited in the first place. So I cast aside my interests for more “serious” pursuits into the social sciences.
Everything about high school felt like a means to an end. And so, I ended high school feeling like, I made it to college! The end. But it really was only the beginning. I didn’t know that, no one ever told me. So I carried this “means to an end” mentality into college and grad school. Instead of exploring different interests, I carried through with my high school interest in Psychology. I can tell you that, a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree later, I have decided to not pursue Psychology in any way and am still trying to figure out a way to do what I love instead.
For reference, my younger brother (by 2 years) who went to a much smaller high school, ended up going to the same college as me, and has maintained a friendship with his core friends from high school. That wasn’t the case for me. Unlike me, he has fonder memories of his high school experience.
2) I hate that you let neighborhoods change depending on where the money is.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that my tutoring lessons cost more than our rent? Well, here’s a brief story of the beginning and the end of my rent-controlled apartment experience in NYC.
Picture it. New York City, 2010. You’re living in a two-bedroom apartment in Lower East Side Manhattan and rent costs roughly $700 a month. Your parents scored this sweet deal back in 1991, when they were introduced by your aunt’s friend who would eventually be your neighbor in the building.
Back then it wasn’t so glamorous or safe to live in the neighborhood. Your parents were scraping by to make rent since they both worked in Chinatown’s garment factories and got paid not by the hour, but by the piece. Fast forward, 9/11 happens and the garment factories shut down. By then your dad goes back to working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant and your mom starts working as a home attendant where she gets paid more than minimum wage. This opens up an opportunity for them to save even more than before.
Anyway, you’re about 18 now and you’re still living in the same apartment you grew up in. Your parents have their own room and so do you, but your younger brother isn’t so lucky and has to sleep on the couch in the living room. Now, your parents finally can make more than ends meet and are living comfortably. But they’ve got their eyes set on the suburbs. A backyard space for a garden? More than one bathroom to share between four people? A bedroom for everyone? And, getting to have a home they can call their own? They were ready to sign on the dotted line. They wanted 20 years of hard work to show for something.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, in the past year, you’ve been sharing your apartment with unwanted guests…rats. Moving to the suburbs was beginning to look a lot more appealing than staying in an infested and poorly maintained apartment.
By that point, Brooklyn was no longer in their price range. Chinese people were beginning to see Staten Island as a place where their money could be worth something, so that’s where they set their sights. Obama also offered an $8,000 tax credit to first-time homebuyers so all the right conditions were there to make this a go. In less than six months of looking, they found something. And off you all go, about an hour away by train and bus.
Fast forward to 2015, you’re curious to see how much your old apartment costs to rent because you really miss the convenience of Manhattan. You blink and blink but the number doesn’t change. It now costs roughly $3400 a month.
If your jaw is on the floor…take all the time you need to process.
Gentrification happened. The neighborhood is hip now. The new, younger neighbors you started seeing a year before you moved? They either opened, worked, or created a demand for hip new restaurants, bars, and cafes. You didn’t see them as a problem then. But now you can’t help but wonder if those rats were a way to push people like you and your family out, to make way for people who could pay more for rent. To them this was “affordable”. But once they entered, the neighborhood became “up and coming”. NYC transplants get to call themselves “New Yorkers”. Even though the New York they’ve created and are living in, is nothing like the New York that was there before them.
Gentrification bothers me the most because neighborhoods change based on where the money weighs the heaviest. That money gets to make what was once unsafe and very uncool, a place that everyone wants to be a part of. This left people with a tough decision to make. Stay in this run-down place where you’re close to your ethnic community or be further away and live in a much nicer place? Not really much of a choice, is it?
3) I hate that you couldn’t appreciate the cultural food that was already there until outsiders called it cool.
Growing up, my mom would pack me home cooked meals for lunch. I was initially thrilled because I love real Chinese food, until my classmates told me it looked funny, smelled funny, and were just generally less than kind about it. Fast forward about 10 years and all of sudden things turned into “fusions”. Chinese food or Asian food in general is something New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers seek out because it’s full of flavor, exotic, and well, delicious.
Don’t get me wrong, I fall for these traps too. Especially when social media tells me dumplings and noodles are cool now. Last spring, I went to Mimi Cheng’s, the hip, new dumpling shop in Nolita. I posted a picture of it and didn’t expect to get this response:
The picture got 95 likes! The most I have ever gotten up until that point. Dumplings and noodles got the official social media stamp of approval.
My parents would call me crazy for paying $12 for 8 dumplings and $13 for noodles. They would tell me, I got ripped off. You can have a whole dimsum experience in Chinatown for four people with that kind of money. Also, for $3 I can get a pack of frozen dumplings from Trader Joe’s and have it any time. The fact that frozen dumplings are being sold at major supermarkets is a big deal! Growing up we had to go to Chinese supermarkets for that.
I’m sure Mimi Cheng’s would have been noticed and appreciated by locals, but what took it to the next level of stardom was being validated by outsiders. This validation from mainstream American culture is what’s frustrating. Why aren’t the “original” mom and pop shops in Chinatown considered pioneers? Probably because their packaging and marketing isn’t made for outside approval, it’s for the people in the know. Either way, at least cultural food is being appreciated. All I can say to the haters from the past who are haters no more is, welcome to the other side.
4) I hate that you encourage living in bubbles.
I celebrated my 17th birthday with my friends in an Olive Garden, specifically, the one in Times Square. Let me explain. New Yorkers rarely leave their neighborhoods and if they do it’s for work, school, or friends. Usually, neighborhoods contain everything you will ever need so it rarely makes sense to leave. Spending most of my time in the Lower East Side meant that anything above 14th street felt foreign to me. So foreign that I didn’t know if being up there was considered cool or not. I didn’t grow up eating non-Chinese food aside from school lunch, so McDonald’s was the furthest we ventured out. Money was tight and McDonald’s was something we could afford to do for birthdays and celebrations. The luxury was being able to eat American food, and because it was more expensive than eating at home. Keep in mind, this was the age before internet on cell phones were affordable, before Instagram’s influence, and before Yelp was a credible source of where to eat. So when it came time to plan my 17th birthday, my friends and I only knew the big brand restaurants we saw on TV. I was also just trying to fit in, so Olive Garden happened.
These days, I find myself in another bubble yet again. But I’m happily in it because I love my neighborhood. We have Austrian food, Chinese food, Thai food, Mexican food, and everything in between. I have now solidified my own taste but am also willing to leave my own bubble every now and then. Like when we (my husband and I) make the trek to Staten Island to visit my parents and visit our favorite Trader Joe’s, track down the Carpe Donut truck in Prospect Park for the best apple cider donuts, go to a halloween party in Long Island City at MoMa PS1, or do an insane Escape the Room in midtown for a friend’s birthday, and the list goes on. With Yelp and Instagram, there’s always incentive to leave the neighborhood…even if it’s just for a night.
5) “I hate that I don’t hate you at all, not even a little bit.”
All those things I said about you is true. But I guess no place is perfect, not even the one regarded as the best of the best. You welcomed my parents when they arrived here from China with no money and created an environment for them to work hard, save, and buy their first home. You made me considerate, driven, and forever a dreamer. In a city that is so fast-paced and often abrasive, you make me appreciate the kindness of others, my friendships, and the moments I get to share with the people I love. Above all, you made me realize that home isn’t a neighborhood because they’re forever changing. Home is something you feel and something you find for yourself, even in a city you think you already know.
Do you live in the same city you grew up in? If so, how has it changed? What have you always wondered or assumed about New York City? Do you love it or hate it?
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