Some weeks ago, I went down to South Carolina for Pure Barre teacher training, along with the other girls at our studio. One night, we went out to dinner at a Mellow Mushroom. I’d read about it on Kate’s article about best restaurants around the country with vegan and allergen-free options, so I was so excited for it. But excitement waned as we waited half an hour for the server to take our order…and then waited, and waited, for our food to arrive. After more than an hour the conversation was waning–or rather, we couldn’t talk about anything besides hunger. We were all agitated, antsy–mind you, we were training 8 hours a day, still in our workout clothes, and the restaurant was only half-full–but no one seemed inclined to get our server’s attention. Without any hesitation I got up and went to someone who looked like a manager, and asked him none-too-subtly to bring out the food as soon as possible. Not rudely, but not sweetly either. Meanwhile the others were watching me with more surprise/awe than I expected. As I came back to the table I heard, “Juhea is so New York.”
In a few minutes some appetizers came (nothing vegan). And then another 45 minutes passed before entrees started coming singly in installments. My vegan pizza came out dead last (I believe my head was in my hands at this point), and didn’t taste as good as I’d hoped, considering I would have eaten a cardboard cutout shaped like a pizza at that point. Worst part of it all was how both the manager and the server didn’t act like much was wrong. I didn’t act out anymore, but didn’t try to smile and act all chipper either–surely further shocking my Connecticut teammates as well as mellow-yellow South Carolina servers.
And then it struck me that yes, they were right, I was so New York. In the five plus years of living in the city, it has become a far bigger part of my personality than any other place I’ve inhabited. I’m fast–I talk fast, think fast, walk fast, run fast. I’m very good at knowing what I want, and very bad at not getting it. (Clearly). I know what to expect going to different types of bars, clubs, cocktail parties, book parties, networking events, alumni events, changing my conversation and look and attitude between them like switching to the appropriate pair of high heels. At these parties, I make my judgments of strangers based on their name-dropping and humble-bragging styles–something halfway between a fine art and a survival skill in New York. And I see right through those maneuvers because I myself have had to resort to them to stand a chance of justifying my existence at a glittery soiree, or sometimes even just a Sunday brunch. Yes, brunch. It’s so competitive living here.
In short, I’ve absorbed everything about New York that used to make me feel so foreign and defiant. Things that I used to–and continue to–complain about to my friends. No wonder then that when I see my parents once or twice a year, they act as if I’ve grown an invisible horn or something that wasn’t there before. When they raised me I was an earnest, cello-playing Catholic school girl in Portland, Oregon. They knew me somewhat well as an idealistic yet ambitious art history major. About the New York me, they know the least. The more places I go, and more identities I adopt, the less they recognize their daughter who is now constantly in a New York state of mind.
Of course it’s inevitable and natural that you let your environment change you. Some of my changes have been positive, even vital–like my discipline, gumption, and super-grit. But my impatience and other New York qualities give me pause. How much do I really want to absorb the very things I once found so disheartening?
The truth is, we are so crucially shaped by the places we inhabit, not just geographically, but metaphorically too. Whichever “place in life” we’re in, we don’t just experience it, but become it and are defined by it: going through a divorce or a breakup, the rocky post-grad phase or retirement, unemployment, new relationships or jobs. Ironically, it’s the places that we want to get away from the most that we also absorb the most. Having a very stressful job can make you think about it and radiate that energy, on the job and off. Going through a divorce can make you feel like a divorcee more than anything else, transforming you not just emotionally but physically and mentally. Unemployment, I think, is the absolute worst: being between jobs, especially for a longer period, can seep under your skin, into your soul. And the more you obsess about it, the harder it feels to get out of it.
But here is truth #2: we don’t have to become every place that we inhabit for a time–it’s a just matter of choosing whether it’s a place we’re just passing through, or a place we decide to make our home. As in one of my favorite Joan Didion quotes, “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.” If it’s a happy place, a good phase–make it a part of you. If not, why stay? Why make it who you are?
I don’t plan on walking away from this city that was Didion’s great love. I’ve learned a lot about myself and life here–but still, I have to be more mindful of how much, and what kind of energy I want to absorb. Today, we went out to brunch (so New York), ate at the bar because we didn’t want to wait for a table (ditto). Our bartender messed up my order twice, bringing out a veggie side dish sauteed in butter. My very, very New York boyfriend took about 0.2 seconds to point that out (not to mention, grabbing the ketchup bottle himself) and I nibbled at bread while they re-made my food. But our bartender was very nice about it, the veggies finally came (on a slightly bigger plate!) and none of this bothered me in the least. I might be New York, but still, I’m more me.
How has where you live, or the phase you’re going through, shaped your identity? Share!
Also in Voices: Confessions of a Wanderlust Dropout – Why I Travel
Photo: Peaceful Dumpling