Chapter 12: New York, New York
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
In the beginning of September 1994, my family moved into a luxurious Upper East Side Manhattan apartment located on the corner of 64th Street and Third Avenue, minutes away from multi-million dollar Park Avenue town houses, expensive Fifth Avenue fashion boutiques, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We lived on the 18th floor of a building that was fully-equipped with closed-circuit security cameras and a fleet of doormen and bellboys who knew all the residents' names. The foundation that awarded my mother the year-long research fellowship also offered our family an enormous housing subsidy. We only paid a nominal fee of $800 per month for a one-bedroom apartment whose rent was at least five times more expensive. Without this subsidy, there was no possible way that my family could afford to live in the Upper East Side. Our neighbors were stock brokers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who all made at least $200,000 a year. My parents' joint incomes barely matched half of that figure. We knew that we were given a rare opportunity to live among the privileged. This marked the beginning of one of the most fun-filled years of my childhood.
Manhattan's Upper East Side was blossoming with many small shops like those I had seen in other parts of the city—the usual florists, magazine kiosks, and liquor stores—but everything looked neater and cleaner. There were also high-end supermarkets, huge department stores, expensive designer boutiques, bookstores, and coffee shops which I had never seen in working-class neighborhoods. I felt much safer walking around the Upper East Side, even by myself, than I had been in either Brooklyn or Queens. My parents let me wander around our neighborhood, read at the local bookstore and magazine kiosks, buy cards at the comic book shop, and even do some grocery shopping for them. I loved the freedom of being able to navigate the city blocks by myself as a ten-year-old.
I quickly grew to be a street-wise city boy. I learned which neighborhoods were safe and which ones were dangerous, and how to take the subways and buses by myself. I began to shed my fear of the city as I immersed myself within it. When our neighbors from Louisiana (the ones before the Taylors) came to visit New York City, I showed them around to tourist attractions by taking public transportation. They were a bit scared of the scruffy-looking people on the subways, the graffiti on the walls, and the panhandlers on the sidewalks, just as I had been when I first came to the big city, but I assured them that there was nothing to fear. After a few weeks, I began to overcome the anxiety and irrational paranoia that I had experienced while living in the basement of Mrs. Mei's Brooklyn home.
I felt grateful to be able to live in such an affluent part of New York City. My family was not rich by any regards, but we knew that people would think we had money simply because we lived in a luxury apartment building. We learned to act more upper-class and to speak to our neighbors with confidence and poise. It was fun to pretend to be rich for a year. We learned how rich people lived. We observed that delivery men would roll shopping carts into the apartment building and carry bags of groceries upstairs where they would be greeted at the door by old ladies and their checkbooks. It seemed like rich people did not go out to buy groceries; they just phoned-in their orders to the supermarket and had people deliver to their doors.
Every weekend, my parents and I would take a 30-minute subway ride down to Manhattan's Chinatown to eat dim sum and then buy groceries. I felt awkward and ashamed whenever I saw the hordes of Chinese immigrants there who could not speak English. I felt like I was somehow above them since I lived on the Upper East Side and most of them could not even dream of stepping foot into such a wealthy neighborhood. Although we were only separated by a few miles, it felt like we were from different worlds. I had lived with working-class Chinese immigrants for a month so I knew a bit about their lifestyle. But now I lived amongst wealthy doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. My neighbors probably earned 20 times as much money as the people in Chinatown or the Yao family in Brooklyn and Queens.
Even though I still looked Chinese, I felt like I was somehow different than the mostly working-class people I saw every weekend in Chinatown: I was not from the ethnic ghetto, I spoke perfect English, and my parents were both well-educated with graduate-level degrees. We had been spared from life in the ghetto through education, hard work, and some luck. I didn't want to develop a sense of superiority over the Chinatown residents because I had also experienced the challenges of being a new immigrant, but it was difficult to avoid doing so. Thus, I tried to distance myself from these people since I felt a bit ashamed that my Caucasian peers might classify me in the same category as them.
In reality, though, my family had more in common with these working-class Chinese men and women than we did with our apartment neighbors. I knew that we were not actually rich. We could pass ourselves off as rich, but we couldn't forget the immigrant thrift that made us into who we were, the pragmatic mentality that connected us with our impoverished fellow immigrants. Every weekend, my parents and I went to Chinatown to buy groceries and exhaustingly carried back dozens of bags of food and supplies on the subway and walked the few blocks from the station back to our apartment. The doormen must have been either amused or shocked to see my family struggling to haul cheap-looking pink plastic bags with Chinese writing on them, overflowing with exotic-looking groceries, into our upscale apartment building. We could have bought those same groceries in the neighborhood supermarket (for twice the price). We could have even called for delivery (for three times the price). But we were not rich. We saved money by expending our own energy to buy and carry cheaper food from Chinatown. My parents never let me forget that we were only temporary guests in this affluent world.
One evening our dear family friend (and distant relative) Grandpa Yao came to visit us in our apartment. It was his first time entering a luxurious Upper East Side residence. He stopped at the front desk and handed the concierge a slip of paper containing my parents' names and apartment number (my parents had written down their information for him earlier because they knew that he couldn't speak English well enough to tell the concierge where we lived). Security was tight in our building; residents must personally approve all visitors before they could enter the elevator. The concierge called us on our closed-circuit TV phone that rested by our front door. Whenever somebody wanted to visit us, the concierge would call us and a live video of the visitor waiting at the front desk would display on the phone's monitor. As soon as I picked up the phone that evening, I saw a black and white video of Grandpa Yao holding a bag of Chinese food. The concierge asked me over the phone, "Do you want to send him up?" I told him yes, and within minutes, Grandpa Yao rang our doorbell.
As soon as we welcomed him into our apartment, he gave us his usual friendly smile and handed us a plastic bag containing boxes of Chinese food that he had bought for us in Chinatown. He was wearing an old baseball cap with nondescript sweater and jeans. He told us that the doormen had escorted him to a special elevator, and he sounded extremely excited about his elevator ride. He recounted the story loudly in Chinese as we sat around the dinner table eating Peking Duck and fried noodles: "After the nice man at the desk called you, he told me to follow the other man to the back of the building. I passed by the elevators near the lobby and saw several people waiting there. The man led me to an elevator in the back that was all empty. I didn't have to wait at all! Haha! Those other people had to wait but I didn't! What did you guys say to the man at the desk? How come I got to ride in the special elevator?"
My parents quietly smiled at each other when they heard Grandpa Yao's story, but I didn't understand what was so funny until after he had left. Back in the lobby, the concierge saw that Grandpa Yao was a shabbily-dressed Asian man who was carrying a large bag filled with Styrofoam boxes and pungent-smelling food. He naturally assumed that Grandpa Yao was a Chinese food delivery man coming to bring food to us. The standard policy for delivery men was that they were supposed to take the service elevator in the back of the building. The wealthy residents did not want to ride in the same elevator as working-class laborers. Grandpa Yao's wait-free "special elevator" was actually the service elevator assigned to mechanics, servicemen, and food delivery personnel.
Grandpa Yao sincerely believed that we had put in a good word for him over the phone so that he received better treatment than the residents by not having to wait for the regular elevator. In fact, he was marked as a lower-class citizen simply because of the way that he presented himself. I now understood why my parents just smiled and said to Grandpa Yao, "Oh really? Special elevator! Haha, that's funny," and then quickly changed the subject. They couldn't bear to tell Grandpa Yao the truth that he had been discriminated against based upon his looks. They saw how genuinely happy he was to come see us and to have the opportunity to take the special elevator. They didn't want to ruin his jovial mood or to hurt his pride.
It wasn't until after he had left that my parents cracked up in laughter and let me in on the joke. It was a bittersweet moment. My parents did not feel sorry for Grandpa Yao, though. They could laugh because they admired his good spirit and happy nature. They knew that Grandpa Yao didn't need their pity or sympathy. He was from a different world, even though he lived only a few miles away from our apartment, a world where everybody looked like mechanics or janitors or delivery men. My parents understood that appearances were everything in the rich, superficial world that we had temporarily entered for the year.
I attended sixth grade at Madison Elementary School, located within a 30-minute walk of our apartment. I felt much safer going to school in the Upper East Side than in downtown Baton Rouge. To get to school and back every day, I either rode the city bus or walked with friends. Kids in New York City went to elementary school from kindergarten until sixth grade. In most other cities, they only went up to fifth grade, so I graduated from elementary school before I came to New York. I liked the fact that I could once again be part of the highest grade in elementary school instead of starting out as the lowest grade in middle school. As an added bonus, I would get to have a second elementary school graduation at the end of this year. Now I was glad that my parents made me skip a grade, or else I would have started middle school when I moved to California without attending a single elementary school graduation.
The kids who attended Madison Elementary mostly lived in the Upper East Side. There were hundreds of public schools throughout New York City, and enrollment was primarily determined by geographical vicinity to each school. Some of the richest kids in the city went to Madison. Most of my classmates were still white, but they were predominantly Jewish rather than Christian. I saw far more Asian kids here than in Louisiana, and there were a few black and Hispanic kids as well. In contrast to the WASP-dominated Louisiana classrooms, the classrooms in Madison contained a diverse mix of students belonging to many different religions—Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism—and even some non-religious students. I no longer felt uncomfortable about being a Chinese boy who did not go to church on Sundays. Here I could be accepted for my differences without pretending to conform.
Regardless of race, culture, or religion, all of these kids shared one thing in common: money. On Monday mornings, many of my classmates would exchange stories about how they spent their weekends at their family's beach house in Long Island or New Jersey. Their families were wealthy enough to own an Upper East Side apartment for the weekdays and a beach house for the weekends. I really liked those kids, though, because they were not obnoxious about their wealth. The kids at Madison were not too spoiled because their parents decided to put them in public school even though they could probably afford private schools. Their parents were part of the upper middle class (doctors, lawyers, and high-ranking businessmen) but not super-rich like CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, sultans of third-world countries, or oil tycoons.
As soon as I started school, I realized that I was in a special position because I was only going to be in New York for one year before moving to California. Since I would probably never see my classmates again, I could do whatever the heck I wanted without fear of leaving a bad impression. I didn't need to invest my heart into making long-lasting friendships; I even told everybody from the start that I was only going to be around for a year. I was not nearly as afraid or nervous as I had been whenever I moved to a new school in the past. By this time, I was already a veteran at being the new kid in class. I still tried to make friends since I didn't want to spend the year as a loner, but I emotionally distanced myself from my peers because I didn't want to become distraught again when I moved to California. If certain kids liked to play with me, then I would be nice to them, but I didn't go out of my way to impress anyone.
Even though we were still in elementary school, I began to see a rift appearing between different groups of kids. It was a simple division of the cool and the un-cool. Some of the kids wore baggier clothes and pretended to be gangsters even though they lived in such privilege. (If they really wanted to be gangsters, they should have taken the bus up twenty blocks to Harlem and strutted on the streets there.) I belonged to the group of kids who were more academically focused (a.k.a. the nerds). There were some people who could jump between the cool and the un-cool crowds. They were smart and studious enough to be accepted by nerds like me but still trendy enough to hang out with the cool kids. I admired those kids since I wanted to be cool while still doing well in classes.
The gap between the cool and the un-cool was not nearly as apparent as it would later become in middle and high school, but I could begin to sense that we were not all one big happy family like my elementary school class in Louisiana had been. Even if I had gone to middle and high school in Louisiana, I would have started to lose touch with my less studious friends as they joined the cool cliques. After coming to this realization, I stopped feeling homesick about Louisiana and decided to live for the moment in New York City. I had been granted a wonderful opportunity to go to school with these children of privilege in one of the nicest parts of the city. I wanted to enjoy the school year and only think about my inevitable relocation to California when the time came. I realized that constantly dwelling on my past led to depressing nostalgia and thinking about the future brought uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. I strived to live in the present, and I had an amazing time during my year in New York City.
The education I received in Madison Elementary far surpassed what I had experienced in Louisiana. In fifth grade just a year earlier, we read children's novels, did some simple math, and decorated our classroom with cardboard and watercolor projects. This year, I took four serious academic classes: math, science, art history, and Latin. We would sit in each class for an hour and then shuffle to the next classroom to learn another subject from a new teacher. In Louisiana, I had one teacher per year. Here, I had four teachers, each specializing in a specific topic, even though I was still in elementary school. Math and science were business as usual; I had always excelled in these subjects from a young age. Art history and Latin were not classes that were normally offered to elementary school students; those ended up being the most enjoyable parts of my education that year. We learned Latin out of a textbook like high school students. Our teacher treated us like mature young adults and did not baby us with fun and games. I appreciated her professionalism and began to feel like I was being intellectually challenged in the classroom.
Art history was by far my favorite class. We studied the history of Western art from the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman times through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, impressionist, and contemporary 20th century periods. Through slideshows, textbook reading, and numerous presentations, the teacher taught us an amazing amount of material about not only art, but also the fascinating history and culture that accompanied the art. This was the most interesting and thought-provoking class I had ever taken up to that point in my life. It was as scholarly as a class geared towards ten and eleven-year-old children could become. The best part about the class was that the teacher would first lecture on a particular piece of art, then she would show us slides and photographs of it, and after some analysis, she would take us on a short walk to the world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art where we would actually see the real thing. We would quietly examine the sculptures, paintings, and statues, then make sketches and take notes in our notebooks.
My year in New York City was when I began to really love learning. Academics had been neither challenging nor rewarding for me back in Louisiana. I never felt like I was actually learning anything meaningful until I took art history and saw those magnificent works in the museum right next door to the school. Many of my fellow students were genuinely interested in learning whereas most of my friends back in Louisiana just liked to play with Ninja Turtles action figures and have fake wrestling matches on the grass. I liked having people around me who shared my enthusiasm for knowledge, and I began to feel like I fit in around the studious kids.
Life at home was equally great. My parents were doing better financially since our rent was subsidized and they both now had jobs. We spent the weekends going to Chinatown, attending free music recitals at the Juilliard School on the Upper West Side, visiting museums around the city, and occasionally watching Broadway plays. We enjoyed life as a typical middle-class family in New York City. We couldn't afford the extravagant luxuries that my classmates' families enjoyed, but we lived decently on my parents' incomes. My family shed our shallow Louisiana country roots and embraced the cosmopolitan culture, accelerating our assimilation into the American mainstream.
I was a bit sad when school ended, but I always knew that I would only be here for a year. I remember that we had a graduation ceremony followed by a school dance in the playground. That evening was the most fun I had ever experienced up to that point in my life. It was the first time I let myself loose and danced the night away. The DJ played loud fast music and threw beads and rubber chickens into the crowd. For one night, nobody cared who was cooler or smarter or more popular. We all danced together until we sweated ourselves to exhaustion, then we sat down, drank some water, got back out there, and danced some more. It was unforgettable.
When my father picked me up from school that night and walked me home, I replayed the pure joy of the dance in my head over and over again. I was sad that I would probably never get to see these kids again, but I was prepared all along not to become emotionally attached. I knew that I was moving to Los Angeles, California in a few months so nothing that I experienced here could stay with me. The year had exceeded all of my expectations, and I felt so thankful that we had the opportunity to live here. I remembered all of the good times during my year in New York City, and I just smiled.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo