As of tomorrow, June 25th, I’ll have been in New York for four years. I wrote a little bit about the experience shortly after arriving in the city, as much as a reminder for myself and as a way to explain my point of view to friends. I don’t like the idea of that lingering unread in servers somewhere, so these are what follow, grammatical errors and all.
I arrived in New York the day Michael Jackson died – June 25, 2009. The airplane landed at some time around 5PM, when he had already been pronounced dead.
I was, of course, oblivious to everything that had happened to him, since I had no outside world news on my 9-hour long flight. I noticed something was wrong as I got through the airport and immigration – every TV was broadcasting the same news that said Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack, and everyone was transfixed with the news. I assumed it was not a fatal heart attack, that he was maybe rushed to the hospital, and didn’t really give any more thought to the matter.
After leaving the airport, I went straight to Manhattan, because I needed to buy a cellphone. Michael Jackson’s songs were blasting on every store I went to. People had boom boxes and were dancing to his songs on the street. “People must really love Michael Jackson around here”, I thought.
It was only the next day I learned he had actually passed away.
When I first got the city, I rented a small apartment in Brooklyn from a great guy called Ray Jones. The apartment was meant to be temporary, as I was going to be there for a month only. It already had furniture and all that, and it was just something I could use as a base of operations to rent my real apartment – something I could only do after I had my Social Security Number, a bank account, and all those kinds of things that are usually required for a normal apartment lease. The bureaucracy of moving from another country is a very complicated thing, so I had to stay on that temporary apartment for a while until I could sort everything out.
To my surprise, when I first got to that temporary apartment, all the door locks in the building seemed upside down to me, forcing me to use the keys on a different orientation I’d normally expect. It was odd, but since that was an old building, I assumed they may had replaced the doors, flipped the locks, or something of the sort. Maybe whoever did maintenance was just reckless; it’s not that uncommon for people to have locks or door handles incorrectly installed, I guess, and this was not the most luxurious apartment ever anyway. So I didn’t think much of it at the time.
I used that first apartment to sort my documentation out, and to hunt for a long-term place I could rent. So after that first month was over, I finally moved to my new home. This new apartment was also in Brooklyn, and it was a pretty cool building; everything was brand new, really shiny and white and polished. Except that all door locks there were also upside down.
It was pretty baffling to me that people could manage to get the door locks installed wrong in a new building. But at a certain point I just decided to have a better look at the lock. There was a name engraved on it; the brand of the lock maker, I think. To my surprise, the name was perfectly oriented – that is, it wasn’t upside down at all.
That’s when I realized that that lock, as well as the other locks I had encountered before, were not really upside down; they were always meant to be that way, and they were correctly installed.
So, as it turns out, keys are used around here in a different fashion from where I come from. Depending on where one comes from, it can said that I am using them wrong, and that this whole time, before moving, I’ve been using locks that are actually upside down, only to now finally start using them the right way.
And as irrelevant as the orientation of a key lock is, it is still pretty emblematic of my experience in this city so far. Of course, everything I see is supposed to be new to me, so I really didn’t have any well-defined set of expectations; that is, I’m constantly prepared to be surprised, and to embrace the experience when that happens. However, sometimes, the smallest things end up getting you off-guard, just because certain conventions you considered to be universal are not quite like that. Not better or worse, really, just different. You realize that, sometimes, your expectations are just upside down.
The week I started working at the offices of Firstborn, the company that had hired me in New York, I was pretty sure everybody hated me.
My first few moments in the office were pretty odd. In a way, I already knew most of the people who worked there – I had been working for them remotely for almost two years, and now I was finally seeing everybody in person. So I was, in all honesty, expecting us to be quite familiar with each other in no time.
Things didn’t work out that well, though. Of course, the first day was pretty nice; being introduced to people, putting faces – and voices – to names, setting my computer up, filling forms out. The usual stuff. I got an office of my own and was pretty happy with it.
The second day, things started ticking me off. I tried greeting people – mostly shaking their hands – and I was met with awkward glances and confused gestures. People didn’t say “hi” anymore; nor “bye”, for that matter. Odd.
Perhaps most unsettling, save for rare occasions, people wouldn’t invite me to get lunch. I’d see large groups of people – people from my department, and people I’ve been talking to for years – going out to get their food while I was left by myself. In all honesty, that’s the kind of situation that used to scare me a bit: being in a different place, using a different language, getting used to different habits, having different food, and now having to find a place to eat on my own, afraid of committing a faux pas that would make me look like a fool. We tend to be afraid of the stupidest things, I guess. Anyway, it was not fun. No wonder I just went and got a sandwich at Subway so many times after I started living here: I’d just order the same thing, answer the questions the same way, and be done with it. I still felt helpless at work, but eating at places I knew gave me one less thing to worry about.
This story is not about discovering whether people actually hated me, though. It’s about the need for social translation in your day-to-day relations, something that is usually overlooked when we’re talking about cultures that are not quite that far apart, but still just different enough. It’s all about the protocol, but the protocol is never clear; you’re supposed to know about it in advance.
You see, I was indeed quite sure people hated me for some reason I didn’t know. I thought that maybe I had acted in a way that people didn’t really like and as such they were pissed with me. So a couple of weeks after I started working there, I brought the topic on one of my many conversations with my local friend Don. I really wanted to understand what I had done wrong and I figured asking him would help.
Don – whom was also not raised in New York – was pretty quick to explain to me that, first of all, people don’t shake hands every day around here. They only do so while meeting someone for the first time, or if they haven’t seen each other in a while. In the same vein, it’s not like they say hi or goodbye to anyone every time they see someone they know. This means my attempts to shake hands every day were probably a bit too much to the local culture to handle.
And, perhaps most striking of an explanation, he theorized that people weren’t inviting me to get lunch simply because I didn’t invite them to get lunch before. He didn’t put it this way, but what I understood was that, since I hadn’t invited them, they didn’t feel at liberty of doing the same with me. My Brazilian ways – expecting people to call me to invite me to lunch from the very start, and shaking hands all the time – turned out to be pretty alien to most of the people in the office.
The next day, at the office, I invited some of the other developers to lunch. And again the following day. And the following.
I like to believe it worked. Now we always go get lunch together, and I’m rarely the one who goes around inviting people to lunch.
And perhaps this small story and my questioning is the reason why, every time I see Don, we either shake hands or hug. As much I’m getting used to the city’s own habits, with Don’s help with social translation when necessary, it seems he’s also getting used to mine.