Before and after my departure to the states, people have always asked, “Aren’t you excited to be living in New York?” I tend to reply with a shrug, and then trivially blurt out about how Times Square smells like urine and weed. People would either laugh or smile in confusion, but again in their heads they will always see me as that girl who’s lucky enough to live, study, and party in the Big Apple. Well, let me bite that apple for you, because ‘luck’ isn’t what New York City is all about.
There’s this phrase parodied from the logo I ♥ NY which translates to I can’t afford to ♥ NY. I admit that the latter is more accurate in explaining the life of university students in this city, whether you’re international or not. In fact, a lot of my American friends don’t live in Manhattan. Most of them commute from their shared apartments in Brooklyn or their homes in New Jersey. Both journeys require thirty minutes to an hour by train. On top of the workload from school –in this case, art school – and the time to commute, they still have jobs in order to provide their own allowance.
Since I moved to NYC, I have become more sensitive towards the currency. The conversion of dollars to rupiah automatically occurs in my head when I am about to spend money. For six dollars, you can only get a bagel with cheese spread, chicken over rice, or all the choices offered in the aluminum food carts around Manhattan. As I munch on my bagel, I often pondered that for the same price I could eat Bakmi GM with probably four or five of my friends back home. But as time went by, I learned to be indifferent about it. To be eating out and paying fifteen dollars or under is already good enough for an affordable dinner with my friends on the weekends.
Another blessing to be taken into account would be my current pursuit in Fine Arts. My parents were lenient enough to let me take my major because I’m a girl –their youngest daughter – and their expectations for me only include becoming a good housewife. Despite my parents’ stereotypically Asian expectation, however, I took my academic life seriously. Thankfully, the quality of the education I’m getting in my university is truly enriching. The professors challenge students not as apprentices, but more as professionals. Grades matters less compared to grabbing opportunities such as internships and making important connections. Arts and culture are highly accessible; most universities in New York are in partnership with museums in order to give their students free entries or at the very least, student discounts.
There are times, however, when I would worry about how worth it I am as an investment of my parents, even when they told me not to. No matter how much I understood their sincerity, I still couldn’t wrap my head around their decision to spend so much on my needs, through working tirelessly. The thought seemed quite surreal especially during times when I also doubt my current capabilities. Am I doing my best? Is my best enough? Can I decrease my spending this month? Am I taking enough opportunities that will contribute to the wellness of my future?
Thankfully, I have learned how to handle these questions whenever they pop into my head. I would try not dwelling on them for too long, nor ignoring them completely as well. At least so far, these questions would keep me pretty grounded from the distractions that this city can offer.
In general, living a life as an international student in America taught me a lot of new things that used to be labeled ‘only for adults’. One example would be applying for a social security number, which will also be your tax tracking number aside from it being a legal work permit. Before this, never in my life did I expect to deal with the word ‘tax’ before graduating college. Yet on a brighter side, I can see my independence here as a convenient barter; using my energy to take care of the bills means to use the internet for movie marathons without the fear of being suddenly cut.
By the end of the day, New York is still a bittersweet city to live in. Rather than the Big Apple, I prefer calling it the Big Grapefruit. Despite the fact that the glitz and glamour life in the big city didn’t really exist for both international and local students, it is still a privilege to experience the city beyond what a tourist can get. You’ll learn to appreciate a walk in the park to be much more refreshing than a stroll in the mall, and there is nothing more comfortable than sleeping in your bed after a long subway ride.
© Sonia Eryka in Times Square taken by the author