Monday, January 8, 2018

The melting pot is alive and well in New York City

The very thing that Stew and I love about big cities, and New York in particular, is their heady diversity. Entering such places feels as exciting, and revealing, as diving into a sea teeming with all sorts of creatures you've not quite familiar with. Yet it's precisely that diversity, all those differences, that so many people in the U.S. today find disturbing, even threatening.

If it's cold in New York, be sure
 to dress properly.
Starting with our second cab ride—one of many because of the freezing temperatures—I started keeping a mental list of the drivers' nationalities. That I can remember, we met a couple of guys from Mexico, plus others from Ecuador, Niger, Burkina-Faso, Sierra Leone, plus three Mohammeds, one from Bangladesh and the other two who weren't much for talking, a hilarious and loquacious African-American and finally, on our last ride to Kennedy Airport, a young woman whose sangfroid behind the wheel left me agape.

In college I'd driven a cab in New York part-time for a couple of years and I can vouch she was an ace driver, who honked, weaved and cut people off with hair-raising abandon, and knew when to bail out of the Van Wyck Expressway and tackle Queens Boulevard and then turn to some back streets and avenues I'd never seen before. And all the while checking a phone mounted on the dashboard for fast-breaking traffic advisories and incoming calls.

Heavy traffic and all, we made it from 43 West 69th Street in Manhattan to JFK in little more than an hour, an impressive performance unfortunately negated by a two-hour delay while our plane crawled to the gate, and then another hour aboard on the runway waiting to take off.

But we made it out of New York anyway, on a night, we read later, when the airport was choking with car and plane traffic. An incoming Air France flight languished on the runway for six hours, while one of the terminals was flooded by a water main break.

Different people. Different restaurants. How about a Chinese Latin joint on 72nd Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, staffed by Mexicans, Uruguayans, and our waiter Ernesto, a Venezuelan who spoke Spanish and Chinese fluently but was still working on his English, plus two or three other Chinese waiters who spoke only passable English at machine-gun speed?

Home of a truly international cuisine. 
The menu was mostly Cuban food, with a sprinkling of Puerto Rican items such as mofongo, Mexican tacos and the usual Chinese fare.  I meant to inquire how such an eclectic palette of cuisines had come to be, but no way. As it so often happens at Chinese restaurants the entrees arrived almost instantly, leaving no time for chit-chat among diners or waiters.

Indeed within a ten-minute walk from the Airbnb apartment where we stayed, we bumped into Armenian, Chinese, Jewish, Japanese, Italian, French and American restaurants, that I can recall, not to mention the chatterbox newspaper vendor from India.

Despite all these foreign choices, our best meal, somewhat ironically, was at the Whitney Museum of American Art at 14th Street and the Hudson River.

At this point, in which the political discourse in America has been poisoned by xenophobic rants about walls, immigrant bans, racist dog-whistles, fear of Muslim terrorists along with Russian plots, Korean bombs and Mexican narcos, the term diversity itself has become a slur, a threat to be vigilant against.

It doesn't seem to matter that the United States, as its very name suggests, is a pointillist masterpiece of different nationalities, religions, races and histories. That's what makes it work, that's the genius of my adopted country.

It's also why Stew and I so much enjoy travel back to the U.S. or to some other places, the more foreign the better. Stew craves diversity the most. He was born in Iowa and doesn't recall interacting with African Americans, Jews or any foreigners until he went away to college. 

Mexico is a very foreign country to Americans, but quite homogeneous. You'd have to travel to Mexico City (or increasingly nearby Queretaro) before you find anything remotely close to the multiethnic stews you find bubbling in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York or Toronto.

And truth be told, expat living in San Miguel remains a binary affair: White Americans and Canadians huddled in one corner, socializing among themselves, and the native Mexican population in another, with very little social interaction between the two groups.

News from Brazil?
Ask this guy. 
Stew, and many other expats we know, discreetly mention needing a "big city fix" periodically: They are talking about visiting large cities in the U.S. or elsewhere for the adrenaline of dealing with different folks, restaurants, shops than what's available in the increasingly airtight, touristy greenhouse that is San Miguel.

I too find America's diversity exciting. Where can I meet, however briefly, someone from Burkina-Faso or Bangladesh, or a young Venezuelan-Chinese waiter, or another from Brazil to give me the latest about his country's turbulent politics?

Yet many Americans today react defensively to such diversity, to different people and national narratives. To such fearful Americans I say, pack your bags, empty your mind and head for New York for a week or two. It'll clear or at least jostle any cobwebs of prejudice or close-mindedness in your head.

If you go this time of year, though, be sure to bring the warmest hat you can find, lest you come back to San Miguel with a more open mind but a frozen skull.

Parting shot: Did my owners forget about me?

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