Subway to Brooklyn

“Does this stop at Myrtle?”

I turned to my right where the voice came from then glanced across to check the board.

As an ethnic Chinese tourist in New York City, this unassuming question got me thinking. For all the times I’ve travelled, even in Asia, I have never once been identified as a local to get directions from. Yet here, halfway across the globe on a subway in Brooklyn, a caucasian woman felt confident enough to ask the Asian sitting next to her if the train she’d gotten on was a local or express. I belonged.

Split into five boroughs, New York City is arguably the most cosmopolitan area in the world - a melting pot of global cultures evident in the food options alone. Often romanticised in movies and on television shows such as Taxi Driver and Mad Men, it’s not hard to see why the metropolis is so attractive and so easy to become a citizen of.

With its population of 8.6 million, communities here have high amounts of differentiation that can cater to the multiplicity of identities, whether we ascribe to it ourselves or they are ascribed to us. Canadian-American journalist and activist Jane Jacob’s book The Life and Death of Great American Cities mentions that ‘cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,’ and I think that’s one of the reasons why NYC is so distinctive. The reason assimilating into the culture here is effortless is down to the diversity on offer such that people can constantly opt in and out of whichever community they feel like they belong to, and no one will bat an eyelid. It’s almost innate.

“Yeah, it’s two stops away. This train’s a local,” I replied. I’d only been in New York for ten days, but it felt like I’d lived here before.

Hot Wheels

One of the things that really unsettled me in Vietnam was the traffic. It was relentless, and I found myself ducking into cafes periodically for cover. Even crossing the road was an ordeal! The bikes were countless and they never seemed to give way. Our local guide kept telling us that we just had to stick our hands out and walk with confidence - so we tried our closest, nervous approximation of that and simply prayed for the best.  

We had just gotten the hang of this when Kaj suggested we take a ride on a Grab bike, because hey - that’s how the locals live. Sofia and I looked at each other in terror, telepathically communicating our fear, “We’re already so terrified of crossing the roads, how are we to survive on a motorbike?”

But since everyone on the team was game, I too opened my Grab app and quickly booked my first bike ride - ever - apprehensively. I had a nervous smile on my face as I waited for the driver to arrive. After a few seconds of frantic waving to attract his attention, I plopped the helmet on my head, clambered onto the bike clumsily and gave him a thumbs up to let him know I was ready.

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As soon as my driver sped up and into the traffic, I started smiling. I was thinking, “Omg, this is so amazing!” repeatedly. I started to loosen my death grip on his shoulder and appreciate the scenery and vehicles I was whizzing pass.

The traffic did not tire or frustrate me any more - I loved being a part of it, watching everybody as they eagerly wait for the light to turn green. This was the best way to experience the city - on a bike, feeling the wind on my face while I take in the sights and smells of the city. Ho Chi Minh City is beautiful when you’re zipping by on a bike.

We did not have much time left in Vietnam after my first ride but we managed to squeeze in a few more trips - even one just before we left for the airport. I wasn’t going to leave without having another go! I’m so glad I decided to step out my of comfort zone, even though I was afraid and it took a little bit of urging. It wouldn’t really have been a cultural immersion if I hadn’t experienced my first real life bike ride - the most common and efficient way to get around the city. It was a great learning experience and I will always push myself to experience something new and scary whenever I visit a new place. And maybe, just maybe -  someday Kaj won’t have to force me out of my comfort zone anymore because I’m learning to do it for myself!