Places and pasts

Between America and Me

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“ If I were an animal I’d be a capybara!”

A what?

My American friends are back at it. They’re talking about their favorite type of tree, that time they saw it in that one national park, and how much they “need their nature”.

I guess I like nature. But I couldn’t name more than a couple types of trees, and I have no idea what a capybara is.

I’ve always considered myself a city person. I was born and raised in the compact, smoggy streets of New Delhi and London, and came of age under the shadow of Dubai’s ever-growing skyline. ‘Nature’ was more a rare vacation luxury than a weekend trip, and frankly, I wasn’t complaining. Don’t get me wrong, American national parks are fascinating — they’re incredible captures of the beauty of this continent’s well-endowed landscape. And the occasional surf in Marin County or a hike down one of Berkeley’s trails are absolutely joyful.

But what’s more joyful is the hustle and bustle of a city’s downtown. It’s the perfect harmony of a hundred simultaneous car honks in Manhattan, New York, or the thrill of an unexpected flashmob in Munich, Germany. These microcosms of human society make me feel more connected to humankind, to this world, than any hike ever could. Some say that urban areas exhaust them. Of them, I ask, what’s more natural than a whiff of that concoction of urine and cannabis (and carbon monoxide) — all organic substances — in San Francisco’s Financial District? What’s possibly more invigorating than the ambition that lingers in the Los Angeles air?

Unlike mountain ranges or riverbanks, cities are reflections of the human condition. When I walk through the streets of European cities such as Paris or Stockholm, I feel connected to their past. Their nostalgic public squares tell stories of political struggles, of ancestors that dreamed that particular city into existence through sheer human effort. Each stroll through one of these cities educates me about the class struggles, the celebrations of independence, and the lives of millions that once shuffled through the same sidewalks as I do now. There’s something about fixating on a random plaque, or a statue in a plaza, that transports me back to time periods I never existed in. It tells me that we humans will always find ways to leave a piece of ourselves behind.

And beyond the past and abstract feelings, cities give me the chance to make sense of the present. On a walk through rainy Seattle one evening last winter, I found myself thinking about the city’s gentle people, its picturesque mountainous periphery, and its contrasting technologically advanced urban landscape. I considered Seattle (and it’s incredible public transportation) in the context of other American cities — how it was both similar and drastically different from Portland, Oregon, it’s little sibling, and Californian cities such as San Francisco further south. These cities have similar socio-economic realities, yet through conversations with locals, I found massive rifts in the inhabitants’ mannerisms, their hopes, and the larger realities — such as the cities’ different approaches to gentrification — that they exist in.

Often, I find myself thinking about these new places I’ve fallen in love with, and the diverging stories they have told me. I enjoy comparing these urban realities with narratives and stereotypes from my past — Americans think Europeans are stiff, while their European counterparts consider Americans they’ve never met brash and loud party-goers.  How did these stereotypes about people materialize, and how did they shape the cities around them?

I am beyond grateful for the many concrete jungles I have found myself in over the years. They’ve taught me bits of history, anthropology, and even psychology (Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?). But most importantly, cities have taught me how to live. They’ve taught me how to exist in my life’s new contemporary narratives, such as the United States, and how to vicariously live in old ones from the past. Cities have taught me empathy — taking the bus has taught me more about the oddities of American people more than any travel book ever could.

And cities have given me immense perspective — they’ve educated me about the breadth of the human experience. A trip  through downtown Chicago is a window into the lives of peoples from all walks of life — all with a wide range of social, economical, political and historical backgrounds. It is a uniquely thrilling, yet humbling feeling, and it’s one of my favorite experiences in the world.

People watching beats bird watching, every single time.

Jayesh Kaushik writes the Wednesday blog on his experience as a first-generation immigrant. Contact him at [email protected] .