Oct 27, 2018 10:17 AM

One Year in New York

The Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Photo: IC
The Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Photo: IC

Excited and totally lost

When I first arrived in New York City, my friend Yu said: “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” I listened, feeling both excited and totally lost.

For most of my time in New York, I lived in Columbia University housing, in an apartment on West 114th Street in Manhattan. It was an apartment shared by three Chinese Ph.D. students studying at Columbia, and their wives. It was a four-bedroom apartment with a shared kitchen and living room. They sublet the fourth room to me for $280 a month.

I liked New York as soon as I arrived. The Hudson River to the west of my apartment; Columbia’s South Lawn to the east. I often walked down Broadway to Columbia’s East Asian Library to read; or sat on the guardrail next to the Hudson to watch the sun set, thinking of home. I loved walking through Central Park to get to my friend living on Park Avenue. In early spring, in clear skies and fresh air and surrounded by lush green, I would meander around the sloping and narrow paths, alone with my thoughts and happy as I could ever be.

Because it was my first time in New York, I had no idea that Central Park was a dangerous place; violent crimes were common occurrences. Rumor has it that an American president said, “In America, we can send people to the moon and back, but we cannot guarantee that someone can enter Central Park from one side and make it out the other.” It must be said, I am rather lucky — I have traveled around the world and loitered about in more than a few places and never come across any evildoers.

Integrating into New York life

Yu helped me find work and introduced me to Mr. Zhu, an older man from Beijing like me. He had worked for a construction company for many years before opening his own home-renovation business. Within an hour of hearing Yu’s request on my behalf, he had offered me a job at $7 per hour. It was a high salary for me because I had no skills, and back then the minimum hourly wage in New York was under $3. Walking to work among the rush of people, I felt like I had integrated into New York life.

My job was actually as an assistant, handing a qualified worker a wrench, a gun drill, occasionally a moving gray board or heavier things. The qualified workers were all professionals, but some of them couldn’t work legally, and were earning far less than me — only $2.50 per hour. Zhu was lazy and would often leave the site once all the work was planned. That left me to be his eyes and ears, seeing who worked and who messed around, who wanted to expose the others as illegal workers. I would report all of it back to Zhu.

One of Zhu’s best friends was an artist, Zhang. The two did everything together. Zhu would often take Zhang, me and a Time magazine editor, “Little Shanghai” (I’ve forgotten his name, it was so long ago), to New Jersey to paint houses. Little Shanghai really liked Zhang and Zhu. He was one of Time’s big editors, made a lot of money, but would come to paint houses just so he could spend time with them. I was so in awe of Zhang’s smooth, quick movements that I couldn’t help but say, “You really are a painter, your brushstrokes are so smooth!” Zhang responded, enraged: “Are you saying I spent all of my life painting works of art just to paint houses?”

Another of Zhu’s friends was a wealthy Jewish man called Ethan, and the two were bound together through a lifetime of business, through good times and bad. It was Ethan who encouraged Zhu to start his own business. One day when we were working in Lower Manhattan, we realized we hadn’t brought a ladder. Luckily, Ethan lived nearby and had one we could borrow. I found his apartment and rang the bell — and only then did I realize that I could not speak English. Frantically, I came up with a Japanese sentence: “Maoxi maoxi, I am Zhu’s friend!” After a few long minutes, Ethan responded in his own Japanese: “Come — come in!” The door clicked open. When I entered, we smiled at each other, though his smile betrayed some doubt. I didn’t know the Japanese word for “ladder” (not that he would have understood) and could only mime climbing a ladder with my hands and feet. Ethan looked at me for a moment, then turned and left the living room. He returned, ladder in hand. The most effective communication method is body language!

Talented characters

One thing I realized while I was in the U.S. is that Chinese people don’t have books in their houses. Of course, there are exceptions — Yu had a whole room full of books.

Yu’s pen name was Jiang He, and he was a famous poet. His knowledge was broad and talent immeasurable, and everyone admired him. Since arriving in New York, no one had seen his writings, and his friends from China didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Over my year in New York, we become close friends. After I left we would often chat over the phone, but before long we lost touch.

Yu was a Beijinger who started high school at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. His history was very complicated and full of ups and downs. He started writing poetry in the 1970s and enjoyed some fleeting fame in the 1980s, but disappeared at the peak of his fame. When I was in L.A., I talked to a mutual friend about him. He said, “Don’t think about it. No one wants to think about it.”

In Beijing, I used to go to Yu’s tiny room for chats that would last long past when the buses stopped running, like we used to do in New York. Yu was obsessed with Western culture, and his profound understanding of many topics ensured that we never ran out of things to talk about. We discussed life to the extent that he would laugh at me and say, “Now you know all of my secrets!” We would also go to exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art or watch old Pasolini films. He didn’t understand Italian or English but would watch with keen pleasure.

Another of the talented characters I knew in New York was one of my housemates, Wu. In his eyes, mathematics, physics and chemistry were the easiest things in the world. He was born in rural Fujian province and got into China University of Science and Technology, and later won a scholarship to get a master’s at Columbia. While I was in New York, he got two master’s degrees, in physics and philosophy, while he was earning his doctorate. It was a piece of cake for him.

He took me to the Columbia University pool and taught me much about life in New York. On weekends, he would take me around the physics department building. Chinese-American physicist and Nobel laureate Li Zhengdao had an office there. On the door there was a square glass window that I would peer through to look at the narrow and messy office. Our conversations would echo in the wide hallways.

Once Wu would get home from the lab, he would watch popular TV shows from Hong Kong and Taiwan that he had rented from Chinatown. He would drag me into watching them with him — some of the sitcoms were vulgar and quite funny. He thought the most beautiful actress was Gong Li.

After I left New York, I kept in touch with Wu. When he finally got his Ph.D., he called me and told me he had been recruited by Deutsche Bank, a rare opportunity for Chinese students in those days. After he started, he discovered that there were a dozen alumni of China University of Science and Technology there too. It seems that even then, Wall Street was ready to welcome China’s economic growth.

No time for play

After we finished a big project, Zhu drove us to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a few days. When we got back, I was unemployed. An economic crisis had spread to the East Coast, leaving lines of shops shuttered. The first thing I did every morning was buy the newspaper, look at job ads in the paper, and make phone calls. Sometimes I went for interviews. There was no time for play.

I would often go for walks along the Hudson. Loneliness causes people to roll things over in their minds. So I sat on a stone bench beside the river, opened a notebook and wrote, my body hot as a fever.

It had already been many years since I had written anything, mainly because I had been misled by the concept that one should not write when not inspired to write. Lu Xun had said something similar, but it is wrong. A writer must be like a craftsman and practice his craft every day. However, it would be another year or two before I put that into practice. Back then, I was just writing beside the Hudson.

Either New York really is the crossroads of the world, or everyone was afraid that I would get sick from boredom. In that short time, I had so many friends come to visit me. There was Jin, a famous composer. He was many years older than me, but he was one of my closest friends. My friends Xiao Dong and her husband, David, showed up unexpectedly one night. Duoduo, who I had met in Chicago a few months before, also came to see me. He spent a few nights in my bedroom and we chatted every night. He slept in the bed and I slept on the lounge chair.

Bei Dao, the poet, also came a few times. Once, a few of us gathered in Chinatown, looking for somewhere to drink coffee. Naturally, Chinatown has no such place, and we searched for ages. We finally found an empty bar in Little Italy. The bar was oddly quiet, and in three hours not one other customer came in. Later, an Italian-American university student who lived nearby told me that the bar was a famous meeting point for the Italian Mafia — no one would dare enter! I suddenly remembered the scene from “The Godfather” — this was that street where Mafia members gathered and bullets flew.

A natural optimist

A photo of me taken that winter has been preserved to this day: long hair down to my ribs, pale complexion, and barely a smile. I am a natural optimist, so this bitter face is very rare for me.

On Christmas Eve, I hung out in Manhattan alone. Central Park was covered in snow, and children sat on sleds, sliding down from the top of the slope, their screaming and laughter piercing the cold sky. In the evening, Rockefeller Center was bright, and the tall Christmas tree sparkled with psychedelic lights. I leaned over the bar and watched the people glide around at the ice rink.

Just before New Year’s Eve, I called Zhu. His wife answered and said, “We’ve been trying to get in touch with you! I called you on Christmas and you didn’t pick up. I thought you had jumped into the Hudson!” I told her that I wanted to jump, but since I was a good swimmer I couldn’t drown. “But I’m thinking about other ways,” I admitted.

On New Year’s Day in 1991, a feng shui master, Duan Wu, took me to Chinatown to help me find a job. He introduced me to his friends in business there, saying I was his little brother from Beijing, and they helped me find a job. I was so grateful to Duan Wu. The winter in New York is very cold, but the economic crisis was colder.

I moved houses once, to Flushing in Queens. At that time, my friends in New York rarely drove, and only one person I knew, Ma Bo, had a car. We didn’t talk very much, so I was anxious about asking him. He agreed very happily and even helped me tie the mattress to the roof of the car. Since then, I have not had much contact with him, but this incident and his simple and sincere attitude left me with a very deep and excellent impression.

Not long after moving, I decided to leave New York and go west to Los Angeles. An acquaintance said I could use his car and later mailed the rest of my belongings. He was a friend of another friend. Everyone called him the “Manhattan Mouse” because there was no place in New York that he was not familiar with. He wrote calligraphy and studied Chinese culture, had girlfriends, and was great at running his own life. When he heard I was leaving, he insisted on taking me to Lincoln Center and bought us tickets to an opera. He died shortly after I left.

When I moved to LA, Bei Dao sent me a $500 check, which I cashed. One year later, I tried to pay him back, but he wouldn’t accept it. He said that it hadn’t been a loan, and that instead I should give it to his friend in Berkeley. I wrote the name of his friend on the check and sent it over.

And with that, I left New York.

Now, I remember that phrase Yu would always say — “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” Looking back, my one year in New York was so rich that there are still stories I have not yet told.

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