New York, USA
August 16, 2011

After a year away, I expected to experience some level of "reverse culture shock" when coming back to the U.S.. But, everything here felt about the same to me when I flew back, last week.

Previously, when returning from a trip abroad I would often feel surprised by details when observing my own culture. This could come in any of several forms:

Maybe this lack of culture shock is because I've been so transient and on the move over this trip rather than settled away in one particular place for an extended period. While out on the road I was arriving into a new country every few weeks. I was constantly exposed to different environments. Returning to America is, in many regards, just the next stop along my present journey.

There is one thing that has struck me as being different: somehow New York City seems tamer. I know that can't be right. Could there really be less bustle, thinner crowds, and fewer taxis honking than before? For whatever reason the city feels less charged than the electric, dynamic place I recall. Maybe it's just the rainy weather keeping people off the streets. Or, perhaps my discordant experience for this return journey is having a skewed perspective: finding even the nation's biggest city tame and ordinary.

I've literally come full-circuit. When I left the U.S. east coast a year ago, I flew west and kept carrying on west until I'd wrapped around the planet. I now find myself here again in the same place. It's feels great to be back.

Since returning a week ago I've been less in sight-seeing mode and more in people-seeing mode. I've spent most of my time calling on many of the same people I saw when last in New York:

Astrid Barbecues


I started by visiting with Astrid over my first three nights back in the U.S.. Her place seemed a logical point to start. I was flying into Newark; her family home is in northern New Jersey.

Catching up was wonderful. She's doing well. Since we last met a year ago she's landed a new job. She'll begin teaching two courses--Enviromental Studies and History of China--at a local college, this autumn. This past summer she attended two conferences through her new school: one in Beijing, the other in Tashkent.

Even better than our swapping tales of recent travel throughout Central Asia were the times when we sat together out on her backyard patio or around the dining table. Astrid really knows what to do in the kitchen. One sunny afternoon, she prepared a full-on barbecue. Another rainy evening, it was full-on fondue. I had sampled her fondue on occasions back while we were both still living in Seattle--it's as yummy, filling, and satisfying as I recalled.

Jade Contemplates Snowcones

Cousin Jade

I've spent the rest of my nights here staying at Cousin Jade's Chinatown apartment. For years I had heard rumors from other relatives about how small the unit was. I always pictured it as miniscule so never asked to stay. However, it turned out to be twice, perhaps, three-times the size of the unit I had back in Seattle's Chinatown. Hers also had a separate bedroom and a proper--if small--bathroom, replete with both toilet and shower. I win when comparing who's lived in the teenier-tinier Chinatown apartment.

Jade's Mott
Street Apartment
Jade is still doing well. She's still running a family business, managing a vegetarian Asian restaurant up on West 4th Street. The lease on that location runs out in a few months. Jade is contemplating whether then might be a good time to make a round-the-world trip of her own. She asked me a few logistical questions; I answered as I could, trying to bear in mind that most people aren't likely to enjoy travel in the manner I do. (Stringing together last-class tickets overland with neither hotel reservations nor end date.)

Over one afternoon the two of us took a stroll along the High Line, a park opened last year on a former elevated railway line that ran up the Lower West Side. (Not a wasted day, but not worth a detour--unless you've never been anywhere to experience nature outside of Manhattan.) Another afternoon, we met up with Jade's partner, Noel, whom I met for the first time while passing through New York a year ago. The three of us took Filipino food at a restaurant that opened recently on 1st Avenue and 12th Street. The two of them make a darling couple--I'm happy they're still together.

Another benefit to staying with Cousin Jade at her apartment on Mott Street is how much the location gives me a chance to speak Chinese. Most of the staff at neighborhood restaurants and shops must be immigrants from mainland China. They can speak Mandarin fluently. For breakfast one day I bought barbecued-pork buns 叉燒包 I recalled eating in childhood. Lunch another afternoon was a traditional crumpet filled with lamb-stew 肉夾饃, that I hadn't seen outside of Muslim, western China; I often ate those after classes at a simple restaurant across from the main gate to Xinjiang University.

My Chinese isn't great, but it is adequate to order food and make conversation. At least it's better than that of the boy behind the counter at the pot-sticker 鍋貼 hole-in-the-wall I took dinner at a couple nights ago. The workers I spoke with my first night could speak just fine, but the 12-year old boy who took my order when I came back the next night told me, "Sorry, I don't speak Chinese."

You'll regret it later, kid. And what are you doing working the night shift at a downtown dumpling shop, anyway?

Craig and David in
Columbus Circle Subway Station


I got together with Craig at Argo, a simple Asian tea house off of Columbus Circle. It seems like he and Morgan are doing wonderfully. They've moved out of their apartment in Jackson Heights and into a part of Harlem a few blocks above Columbia University. Craig works as a medical doctor there--hence the move. Morgan has been working in Ghana over the summer. I'll be leaving New York later this afternoon--but she should be back by the time I've returned.

Hopefully, we can all get together and catch up more after we're all back in New York.


Jenn is the only person I've seen since my return to the U.S. whom I'd also seen face-to-face anytime recently. We caught up in Berlin a couple months ago. She and I knew each other in Seattle as co-workers, years ago. We both quit the company around the same time then moved to another continent shortly thereafter. I ran off to Asia. She ran off to Europe. Opposite trajectories bore similar, common ground.

Jenn has been settled into life in Germany (she even got married there) for several years. But, Jenn returned to the U.S. a few weeks ago to see how life here treats her for a year. Her husband, Uwe, should come join her this autumn.

Jenn is about to begin teaching at a school in suburban Washington, D.C.. She decided to make one final getaway, taking her last weekend before the start of the school year visiting people around New York.

I met her at Grand Central Terminal. It turned out that Jenn hadn't been through New York since she was a child so didn't have much of a sense of the city. As she had only a few hours in Manhattan before meeting with friends in New Jersey I proposed we walk all the way downtown and catch the Staten Island Ferry. To be sure this was something she'd be interested in, I asked if there was anything specific she wanted to see on what was essentially her first trip to New York.

Lobby of Main Branch New
York City Public Library
"I'd like to see the main library, the one with the stone lions out front, if it isn't too far away," she said.

"As a matter of fact, it's about three blocks from where we are now," I said, as we took the 42nd Street exit out of Grand Central.

We sat around a small table on the landing mid-way up the library steps and snacked on buns I'd bought in Chinatown earlier that day. I had to eat up all those filled with barbecued-pork, having forgotten that Jenn is a vegetarian. Happily, I'd also brought along a few "rooster-tail buns" 雞尾包, another style of bun filled with a buttery, sweet coconut-and-sesame mash. After we'd finished eating, I asked whether she'd like to step inside the library.

"Nah... we can move along, now. I think I'll be happy to see it just from the outside," Jenn said.

"Oh, we really ought to at least peep in. It's been years since I was last here, but I recall that some of the reading rooms were pretty nice," I said.

Astor Place
We climbed up the remaining steps and walked inside. Jenn didn't seem yet convinced.

"Well, this might be a good place to find a bathroom... "

Then we stepped through the lobby into an exhibition hall. There was a temporary exhibition displaying extraordinary objects: The world's first photocopy, at the time dubbed a "xerograph". Original, handwritten scores written by the likes of Miles Davis and Beethoven. A Gutenberg Bible. There were dozens more cases housing similarly significant items.

What struck me was not just what a fine exhibition it was. (I never did know where the word "Xerox" came from.) In addition to all the cool objects on display, I contemplated how this was just some ordinary, free exhibition here at the main branch of the public library. It would be such a big production, a huge event if brought out to Seattle, the city where Jenn and I first met over a decade ago.

Jenn and David in
Washington Square Park
I'm not sure whether I articulated that thought aloud to her, but was glad that we stumbled into something cool. First trips to New York should make the city feel full of wonder.

From the library, we continued walking down Fifth Avenue. I felt sheepish offering basic orientation, so reminded myself that it was Jenn's first visit to New York and that I would like such an introduction, myself, the first time I visited any city:

"Look how the street sign changes. The one on our side says West 23rd Street, but the one on the other side of the street says East 23rd Street. We're on the dividing line between east and west, Fifth Avenue. Anything this way is the west side. Anything that way is the east side...

"Avenues run north-south. Streets run east-west...

"Talking about areas north or south you wouldn't use compass points, though. Anything north is 'uptown' and anything south is 'downtown', though those terms can refer to specific parts of Manhattan, as well... "

We continued strolling down Broadway, pausing for caffeine at a coffee shop off of Union Square. We rested our legs in Washington Square Park, then finished our day over a round of beer somewhere along those two remaining blocks of Mulberry Street that are all that's left of Little Italy.

We didn't have enough time to make it to the Staten Island ferry. But I think we both had a lot of fun and saw a fair bit of New York.

Bonnie B. in Veniero's

Bonnie B.

Bonnie B. and I share an identical connection to the one Jenn and I share. The three of us were all co-workers over the same time together.

I may have managed to connect with Jenn in a few odd corners of the globe. However, Bonnie B. trumps Jenn. She and I have met up in Japan, Las Vegas, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, and, most recently, Los Angeles.

Now, she and her husband, Marven, have moved here to New York. So, we can add one more pin to our rendezvous map.

The two of us met up at Veniero's Pastry Shop and Caffe on 1st Avenue and 11th Street and began catching up.

It sounds like everything is going well for her and Marven. He relocated here to begin a new job. They've been living in New York for just a couple months, so Bonnie is yet in her initial stages of settling into the city. Right before we met she'd been attending a book club on the Upper East Side.

"I was bit disappointed," Bonnie B. said. "I was the only one who had read the book. Most of the conversation was wholly off-topic."

Hookah Break
"Isn't that what book clubs are for?", I said sarcastically. "An excuse for women to get together and chat around a few drinks?"

Bonnie did not take to my joke. "There were men there as well as women. But, most of the 'book club' conversation was nostalgia, people asking one another if they remembered how things used to be here in New York long ago. Like whether they remembered back before all the subways had air-conditioning."

"I remember that!", I exclaimed. "The trains were so loud in the summer because you kept all the windows down and you heard so much noise as they clattered through the tunnel. But wait. Now, I'm the one who's getting off-topic... "

When Veniero's closed at midnight we strolled across town to a hookah lounge on MacDougal Street to carry on catching up. It must have been 3:00 by the time I got back to Chinatown.

I'm certain I'll be seeing Bonnie B. again before long: if not here in New York, in some other interesting corner of the world.

I don't have much longer in New York, but I do still have more plans. Brother Alan and his girlfriend, Devon, are supposed to fly into town this morning. They'll be the first family members I've seen in over a year. We'll meet at Katz' Deli at 11:00 A.M..

Then, later this afternoon I'll be riding the Megabus, again.

Next stop: Washington, D.C.