Yalei Wang’s experience in the “tough, unforgiving and always real” city of New York is the focus in the second of our bi-monthly “TBS Travelogues.”


There undoubtedly will be enough New York travel pieces to fill up an entire dossier here on The Big Smoke. It’s almost like the story of our first crush or our first day of school. Visiting New York for the first time is a rite of passage. If you’ve been there, you know exactly what I mean. If you’re from the country or a small town, you look towards New York with wide-open eyes, full of optimism and fantasy. Likewise if you are a perpetual escape artist like me, chasing the tail of a vagabond life which is both impractical yet so desirable.

Besides the well known idiosyncrasies which make us love the place, it’s the personality of the city which really had me wanting more. The city is tough, unforgiving and always real. There’s never time for a “Hello” or “Thanks, have a nice day.” People shoot in and out of stores, down avenues and swerve around corners in their beetle-black limousines. In Melbourne, I felt like an independent and courageous young woman. In New York, I felt naïve, innocent and practically virginal.

I had no idea how difficult it was to navigate oneself in a city like New York for those first three days.


Image: Paul Bugeja

For one, I felt stupid not knowing how to distinguish the differences between their confusing currency. I also didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to say hello or sorry. I didn’t know that in Midtown (where I was staying) you had to dress up all the time, lest you wanted to be mistaken for being lazy and un-motivated. Because that was the beat of Midtown. Ambitious, energetic and high flying both in business and pleasure.  

Not knowing the customs of a foreign country should be more than forgivable. But come across a New Yorker who doesn’t have the time to listen and you’re going to be burnt in a second.

My New York was a brutal one that forced me to be the person that I truly was inside. If someone was in my way, I’d say “Hey I’m walking here!”

If a guy wolf-whistled at me, I could squarely look him in the eye and say “Fuck you.”

The thing is, you can do this anywhere, but only in places like New York do people actually expect you to do it. A city like New York is like a queen bee with a short temper. She’s had a history, a life, a colourful past and she has no time for bullshit in the future. If you can’t take that or stand up to her, then she’ll eat you up alive.

I guess this is what made me miss Melbourne. People are polite, happy and easy going there. That’s the general tone of the city. In New York, everybody seemed jaded, tired and like they had a whole mouthful of complaints to unload as soon as they found a willing ear.

The strange thing is that I like this in a city. I don’t enjoy being shoved out of the way or being the victim of rudeness. But for once it’s not about what I like or don’t like. It’s about the fact that people are living lives that are hard, trying to make it somewhere. They lie in their beds at night whether it be in Brooklyn or Manhattan or Queens and they have some sort of dream for the future.

To run for mayor, to work for the Yankees, to get out of that bagel cart and work in a skyscraper down Madison.

The women in Manhattan were sassy. They bantered  and loudly at that) about their in laws, their husbands and their inability to get that well deserved raise. Men wore suits…all the time. And then there’s Downtown. Old ladies pushing grandma carts and walking dogs. I was assailed unexpectedly by a Greenwich local who had lived there for forty years. She told me she knew Andy Warhol, and how to get to anywhere Downtown in under 15 minutes. She wanted to be heard, she wanted someone to listen to her, and I did. She performed all of this in front of me and all I had to do was stare dumbly at my map for her to understand that I wasn’t from around there.

New York will always be a city of myth to me. It’s not only true that most movies are shot there, but the people you’ll encounter there seem like they’re from a movie. The sheer variety of people that make up New York is truly astounding. On my way towards JFK bound for Melbourne, I knew I had to be back there someday. The next time, I’d have a purpose. A job, a goal, a means to an end. To me, it’s the only place where they understand the true meaning of grit and that dreams have no limits.

new york

Image: Paul Bugeja

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