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Connecting Across Borders
Jimmy Lee
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Being a native New Yorker defines who I am. Since I was a small child, I’ve loved everything here: the people, the cultural diversity, even the public transportation. I especially love that people from all across the globe have brought traditions from their homelands and fused them with the American dream.

However, until recently, I didn’t have many opportunities to explore other cultures. I grew up in an Asian neighborhood, and went to elementary and middle school with other Asian kids. It wasn’t until high school, when I met my best friend Luis, that I got an insider’s view of another culture.

The first day of school, Luis wore a shirt with the G train emblem that said “Brooklyn to Queens” next to it. This was symbolic. It showed me that he was also passionate about New York and the MTA Subway, which I consider a symbol of the city’s diversity.

“Where’d you get that shirt?” I asked when a mutual friend introduced us. We were soon discussing our neighborhoods and cultural heritage.

Cultural Heritage

Luis is Puerto Rican and he expresses great pride in his native country and culture. As we got to be friends, he showed me around the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Bushwick, Williamsburg, East Harlem, and South Bronx. The scent of rice and beans with tostones wafted from Puerto Rican restaurants and stands. Loud Puerto Rican hip-hop music blasted from car stereos. The Puerto Rican flag waved from storefronts, homes, automobiles, and clothing lines that stretched across the streets.

The local residents, a lot of whom were rocking Puerto Rican flag T-shirts, were enjoying the outdoors and talking in Spanish. When Luis introduced me, they were welcoming even though I was an outsider. It was a completely different environment than I was used to, but a totally invigorating experience.

image by YC-Art Dept

Luis’s cultural pride was contagious. After visiting the Puerto Rican neighborhoods, I became more interested in my own heritage. I liked how Puerto Ricans marked their territory with flags, graffiti, and photos of Puerto Rico so beautiful that they looked like they were straight out of a travel agent’s office. I started noticing that my own neighborhood, Flushing, was similarly claimed with Chinese characters, phoenixes, dragons, zodiac animals, lanterns, gongs, and many other ornaments.

‘My People’

I started thinking more about my own culture and its values. My family is from China, and I was the first of my cousins to be born in America. I realized how the Chinese values of entrepreneurship, education, and working together as a team had led my family to build a foundation in the U.S. that will allow me and my cousins to grow up with many opportunities. I felt proud of my family and my culture.

Luis and I developed friendly rivalries over differences between our cultures and cuisines, each of us poking fun at the other’s heritage. I began to refer to Chinese neighborhoods as “mine” and called other Chinese people “my people.” Of course, he had already been referring to Puerto Rican neighborhoods as “his,” operated by “his people.”

When he would order Chinese takeout, I’d be like, “Did I say you could eat my food?” Or if he mentioned a Chinese neighborhood, I would say, “This is our property, you’re not allowed over here.” And if I mentioned a Puerto Rican neighborhood, he would respond, “You won’t last five minutes in East Harlem. South Bronx, you won’t even last three minutes.”

Open-Minded Pride

Although we joked about our “territories,” I actually think joking around can ease ethnic tensions and allow people to be openly proud of their culture while allowing others to be proud of theirs, too. And I think bonds between different cultures should be encouraged.

It’s OK to be pumped with pride about your own culture, and to think of your neighborhood as a comfort zone, but venturing out of that zone to connect with others is important. It’s a good way to learn to respect and understand other people and their cultures. After all, the melting pot model is what America was founded upon.

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(NYC-2010-09-05b)

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