New York, NY, USA
I remember my first trip to New York City, years ago with my good friend Philip. He adores the city, and begged me to go with him. I have never been a fan of cities, but after living in Bern, Switzerland, as an exchange student for a year, I thought I could conquer anything. And I remember quite clearly what I thought of New York City: It’s dirty, crowded, noisy and chaotic! I hated it, and I hadn’t been to NYC since, so I was concerned as I was applying for the NYC Teaching Fellowship that I wouldn’t be able to live in such a big, dirty, complicated place as New York City.
Imagine my surprise, then, to be walking the streets of New York City today and find myself marveling at how polite and respectful the people were, and how clean and orderly the streets were. I said this to my mother on the phone and she said, “But they say the trash collectors are on strike!” I know, I replied, I can see the mountains of plastic trash bags on every street corner, but the trash is in bags, and piled neatly, and not being ripped to shreds by cats…. The subway goes all over. The sidewalks aren’t so cluttered with trees and dumpsters and vendors and piles of trash that you have to walk in the streets. When you cross the street, there are crosswalks and pedestrian lights and cars stop to let you use the marked crossings. When you walk into a store, you aren’t accosted by a salesperson unless you ask for assistance. I could go on….
Culture Shock on the Subway
Every time I come back from the Middle East, I experience reverse culture shock in a different way. The first time I came home, in July 2005, I felt like all the women were walking around naked. The second time, in June 2006, I was still bargaining for the “volunteer teaching poor Arab children” price, and couldn’t make eye contact with men. Last time, in February 2010, I simply couldn’t believe that there was so much less free WiFi in “First World” American than there is in “Third World” Jordan! (I’m happy to report, that’s no longer true … free WiFi is as close as the nearest Starbucks now!) But I learn from each experience, and it never hits me quite the same way twice.
When I’m in the Middle East, I’ve become accustomed to looking at someone and being able to make a pretty educated guess about what language they speak by looking at their faces. Filipinas speak Tagalog and reasonably good English. White people generally speak English quite well, if not fluently, but perhaps with a European accent of some kind. Arabs speak Arabic, and maybe varying degrees of English. And so on. So when I look around the New York City subway, I expect the color of someone’s skin and the shape of their face to tell me something about what language they speak, how good their English is, and what kind of accent they speak with. Much to my bewilderment, they all speak fluent English with a New York accent! What’s with that??