A nonprofit worker talks about good penmanship, Chinese church, and what to do when you can’t leave your hometown behind.
Take the life of some underachiever in, say, Normal, Illinois–shitty apartment, dead-end job, a social life that consists of three bars and a group of indifferent friends–then transplant it to New York, New York, and you’ve got yourself a success story. The underachiever instantly looks like someone you’d want to be.
Why is this?
It’s because New York City is better.
We all feel its magnetism at some point in our lives. Usually, this point is in our late teens to early twenties, when we start making decisions and don’t yet know ourselves well enough to know what might be best for us. All we know is the cultural dogma that puts New York City forward as the greatest city in the world. And how nice for us that the greatest city just happens to be American.
Okay, people say I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about New York City and probably they’re right. I get sore at this cultural mythology because I bought into it for so long, and all it got me was a hard kick in the ass.
But that’s what makes Symphony’s story so interesting to me. Like so many twenty-somethings, she too wants to move to New York. But her reason for wanting to move there is entirely original.
Symphony grew up in Parsippany, Nj., but spent much of her childhood in the city–attending church, taking piano lessons, learning to drive on I-280 during the weekend morning hours when the Holland Tunnel is a ghost town.
Despite this, she doesn’t consider herself a real New Yorker. This gives her an outsider’s observance of the habits of New Yorkers, and one thing she’s noticed is that the idealism with which other outsiders move to the city is worlds apart from the perspective of natives.
The newly minted college grads who flock to the city with stars in their eyes brighter than the lights of Times Square? The 20-somethings who will spend hundreds of dollars a week on things like Sunday brunch or a trip to the farmers’ market? Those are a very different breed from born-and-bred New Yorkers.
“Even people who have lived here their whole lives have never experienced the things other people come here for—seen a Broadway show, or gone to a concert.”
Real New Yorkers are equally enamored with the city, even at its worst, but for a very different reason from the transplants. Where kids from California and Alabama and Pennsylvania come to mine the city for its cultural and social riches, real New Yorkers (and their suburban counterparts) stay in the city for the sake of actual riches.
Symphony knows these people intimately–growing up, they were her friends’ parents; these days, she sits beside them on her daily commute.
#queenscapes happy Thursday y’all ✌️#symphxnewyork A photo posted by symphosanna (@symphosanna) on
Each morning, Symphony takes the Lakeland commuter bus from Parsippany to the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street in Manhattan. From there, she transfers to the N/Q train to get to Astoria. It’s a two-hour commute, and she’s one of the youngest people making it.
“I just look at the other people who commute on the bus, and I’m like ‘How have you been doing this for ten plus years?’ I feel crazy after doing this for two years. But I think a lot of the people who commute want the American dream of a nice house, two cars, and for their kids to go to a good suburban school.”
It’s a lifestyle choice, she acknowledges, and she understands it. But for her, spending hours in a no-man’s-land between work and home cuts out the part of life that she finds most important part.
“If I ever have a child, I don’t care for having a big house for them. I would rather have my community in the same physical geographic place where I’m living.”
This is why Symphony wants to move to New York–to be near the community she’s attracted to.
Nothing unusual there, until you find out what kind of community it is.
At the moment, Symphony is looking for an apartment in Queens, since it’s cheaper. Long-term, she’d rather be in Manhattan, even though the rents are higher and even though her commute will once again be interminable. She wants to be able to have people from her church come and hang out at her place the way she remembers from college–those spur-of-the-moment get-togethers that end up lasting all night. Many of those people, she says, might not be able to afford the $2.75 for a Metro Pass to take them out of the borough.
“I want to have my home in a space where people can just come. It really takes a community to support one of our friends who has a hard time looking for work or just getting by and surviving. I think because of growing up and having those experiences I just naturally gravitate toward those people. I want to be part of a community that cares for them.”
This perspective, she acknowledges, has really divided her from the friends she grew up with in New Jersey. Nice people, she is quick to say, and she still loves them, but it’s become harder and harder to invest in those relationships as her mindset has shifted.
“I feel like it’s not going anywhere. I feel less challenged. I want to be with people who care about justice and are okay with being uncomfortable with the hard things around them that they see.”
When she was in fifth grade, Symphony’s father began leading a small Chinese Christian church that met on Allen Street. It was more a labor of love than a paying vocation. The church was small, and filled with the kind of people that Symphony describes as having a tough time living a normal life.
One of the things that gave me permission to leave New York City was an essay by Adam Gopnik, where he laments (albeit fondly) how it takes a hell of a lot of money to just live a normal life in New York City. But Symphony isn’t talking about the emotional turmoil of deciding whether to go for after-work cocktails or buy enough toilet paper. She’s talking about people for whom life just about anywhere would come as a challenge: the extremely poor, the mentally impaired, the immigrants who can’t get a purchase on their new environment.
People like this, she says, are the reason she wants to move to New York. She feels an attraction to them that, over time, has made it very hard to connect to her friends back in the suburbs.
“Everybody is struggling so hard, and you need some optimism and hope in that.”
Community seems to be Symphony’s north star. Wherever she finds it, she treasures it, and she finds it in a lot of places. A small church populated by social misfits isn’t the only odd place where she found people to love and care for. Another place was the online community of fan fiction writers. Writers, she says, would post in online forums, asking for someone to draw them a title page or an author avatar. Symphony had always had good penmanship, and she offered her services to them. Doing a few of these projects showed her that she had a talent for artistic hand-lettering…well before hand-lettering became a thing. Her talent continued to grow when she went to college in Washington, DC. She hung out with artists who challenged to try new things with her calligraphy. Symphony wasn’t an art major, and these friends weren’t even directly trying to encourage her; it was just the time spent together, ending up at somebody’s house and hanging out all night, talking and drawing and finding inspiration to become whoever it was they were all growing into. There’s nothing quite like college to foster this sense of community, and Symphony misses it a lot. It’s what led her back to the internet, to find more creative inspiration for her calligraphy. Even though she has no plans to do it professionally–she’s committed to her nonprofit job in Queens–she likes finding interesting or inspiring quotations on Tumblr and copying them into her journal for calligraphy practice. This is how she and I met. I was running a contest for a handwritten header to adorn the new design of this very site. There weren’t any guidelines to this contest, because I didn’t really know what I was looking for. But when I saw Symphony’s entry, I felt a sense of instant recognition. You know how you get a letter, and the person’s handwriting has as much to do with what you read as the words on the page. It’s like the penmanship stands in for tone of voice and facial expression—you see their gestures, you feel their volume, all in the swoop of a line or the size of a capital. It can inspire instant affection for someone you don’t even know. The way Symphony wrote the title of my project, it felt like it was her project, too–like she knew exactly what I was doing, and why, as if she’d been listening in on my hopes and ideas for this project before it even began. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. The whole “best thing about us is the people we know” line could easily describe her approach not just to community, but to living in New York City. A recent conversation with one of her coworkers–a New Yorker whose family goes all the way back to L.E.S. tenements–yielded an interesting reason for the contrast.
“She said something I never thought about–the reason some people will spend a lot of money in New York on going out. They think ‘I’m not going to be here for a long time, so I might as well treat myself.'”
Symphony rides a middle ground between these two extremes. She loves being in the city, especially with the weather getting nicer every day, but the experience is never quite as rich as what she remembers from her college days in DC.
“There are lots of new exhibits going on at the museums. Lots of food festivals and cultural stuff, like different ethnicities having a street fair every weekend. But in the New York area it’s harder, because you have to pay.”
Right…pay. Nothing kills a budding appreciation of culture like having to pay for the privilege. And nothing will squash a starry-eyed newcomer’s fascination with New York like being turned away from its best assets because you don’t have the money. Fortunately, this time of year makes it a wonderful experience just to get out and walk around the block.
“Spring in Astoria really is the best thing ever! There’s none of that congestion [like] in Manhattan. Brooklyn isn’t as congested, but it’s so grimy! But in Queens, it’s low buildings, the sidewalks are bigger, there’s a lot more space, traffic isn’t as bad. I’ve found Queens to be an amazing breathing place. A lot of shops have a bench outside and I can just sit there.”
This strikes a chord in me, as she says it–one of the biggest luxuries New York City can offer is the opportunity to just sit somewhere, outside, in nice weather, while everyone else is hurrying past, trying to get out of New York whatever it is they came for.
After this week the blossoms will be gone. But for now I’ll enjoy them. Shoutouts to the taxi + man walking his dog for getting in my shot. #symphxnewyork A photo posted by symphosanna (@symphosanna) on
Plenty of Symphony’s friends have aspirations toward life across the Hudson, but she often feels alone with her motivation. The thing is, she tells me, you can only offer so much support to other who need it before you start to need some support yourself.
She sees that playing out in the Chinese Christian church, as well–not just the one in Chinatown, but on a broader scale. The younger generation that gets packed off to college comes back feeling like their elders can’t relate to their spiritual challenges; many of them end up leaving the Chinese church for a multi-ethnic church, or possibly drifting away from church altogether.
This amounts to the same thing for many Chinese Christians, Symphony says.
“In Chinese, the first character in ‘China’ is center, and the second is ‘country.’ So basically the translation of China is ‘Center Country.’ It is a culture of ‘We are the best, we do everything the best, other nationalities are not as good as us.'”
The practical outcome, she says, is that Chinese Christians are very nationalistic and very family-oriented, sometimes to an extreme. A lot of young people are faced with the ultimatum that leaving the Chinese church amounts to disowning their family.
Conversely, those who do adopt a different spiritual path–even a Christian one–inadvertently cause a lot of hurt to their elders. All too frequently, she says, the young people just disappear, causing a lot of internal guilt and angst to themselves and to their communities.
What it comes down to, Symphony says, is miscommunication…possibly not even knowing how to communicate…with the people who raised and mentored you from childhood. The older Chinese have an ingrained sense of propriety that keeps them from talking about things like sex, political worldview, personal weaknesses, even things like amazing spiritual experiences…all the things that make up a person’s identity outside of their ethnicity.
Young people are encouraged to be very vulnerable about things these days, and this makes older Chinese Christians very uncomfortable.
“We grow up, we go to college and have these awesome experiences, and come back and are like ‘This is crap, the Chinese elders don’t know anything.’ How we see community is different from that nationalistic family loyalty.
“Our generation, we’re all about vulnerability and transparency and trust, and creating an honest, safe space. Which also I think has been taken to an extreme. It’s not bad, but it’s knowing how to respectfully engage in dialogue.”
Symphony wrestled with this herself–thinking maybe she should just leave the church because it wasn’t benefitting her. The Chinese Christian community didn’t look anything like the community style she’d grown to love in college. But over the past year, she says, she’s started to see the picture as being bigger than herself.
“Church isn’t really for receiving—it’s more I have to give myself up.”
The more she invests in the church as a whole, the more she sees the nuances of vulnerability. It doesn’t look the same, of course, as it did among her college friends–but it’s there.
“I had this conversation with someone who is in her 40s–not quite our parents’ age but not a millennial, either. We were talking about the word ‘vulnerability’ and there’s no direct translation in Chinese!
“I’d never really thought what we can offer as a younger generation within our cultural identity. I think our strengths really contrast. Being raw, sharing openly about our struggles, and kind of laying our stories out…I think that’s something that we can definitely exchange with those in other decades.”
On Mothers Day this year, Symphony’s pastor invited people in the congregation to stand up and ask for prayer for their mothers. One man in his 50s, who has been there as long as Symphony can remember, stood up and began to talk about his mother.
It was a revelatory moment, Symphony says–she’d been going to church every week with this man for thirteen years, and it was the first time she’d ever heard him talk about anything personal. It was a thing that might never have happened if she and other younger people hadn’t stuck around. After showing up for months and months, and simply being present as their true selves, they’d seen a genuine change take place.
“These are people I see on a weekly basis, and I’m getting to see what their griefs, their pasts, their fears are.”
From the outside, it might seem like a small payoff. But if you’d been around as long as Symphony has, you know how big a deal it is.
I’m starting to think that community is the real reason we all want to move to New York City. We think we’ll find ourselves among people who have what we want, and that we’ll learn how to get it by being around them.
The problem is that all those people we’re trying to be around are looking for the same thing as us–something new, something better, an apartment or a city or a church that feels like a better fit for what they want to become.
This is as true in New York City as anywhere else. Maybe even more true, because there are so many more options in front of you as to who you can be, and with whom you can be.
For some people (like me) the easiest thing is to surrender to the constant shifting, and avoid letting anything stick too close. But sometimes things do stick, as I’ve found out recently. Or sometimes you get stuck–finances, or family ties, or some deeper conviction won’t let you change the way you want.
These are the moments when, if you want to survive, you have to look deeper at where you are. Sometimes, it turns out, that deeper look is all your community needs to become a pretty perfect place.
happy Chinese New Year! got to see the parade from the inside this year #symphxnewyork #chinatownnyc A photo posted by symphosanna (@symphosanna) on
“I feel like some of the stuff I’m talking about is why you do The Connoisseurs. It isn’t a new concept! It’s an age-old concept—in the Bible it’s there, about sharing life. I almost feel like it’s been lost, and now we’re rediscovering this power of story. When you open up, there’s something profound.”
You could, she says, just spill your life story to a stranger at a bar and have no reservations about it, knowing you’ll never see that person again.
But there are people you can know your whole life, without knowing very much at all about them. What would happen if you started letting your life story be known by them, or inviting them to tell theirs? What would happen if you made your life about creating community for the people who aren’t like you?
That’s why Symphony wants to move to New York–not to mine it for all it can give her, but to give of herself and find out what happens.
And as far as finding out goes, the one thing she shares with other ambitious twenty-somethings trying to get there…like I was only a few years ago…is her impatience.
“I’m pretty young, but there’s not endless time. I feel like I’ve sort of lingered in this in-between state long enough, and I feel like I’m ready to hit the ground running.”
Follow Symphony’s Instagram to see all the things to love about New York City.
Find her calligraphy work here.
If you’re trying to move to New York City, start with this guide.
(I wish it had been around when I moved there.)