Musings on New York City & Migration

inspired  by Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn 

dedicated to my parents, Peace & Sunday Ezeh, your migration is the foundation of my story

As is the case of countless migrants, New York City was the very first place my dad experienced in the United States, and though he was there for what I imagine to be mere hours, it left a lasting impression.

A few years ago, while cleaning out my childhood home in preparation for a move, my family and I found my father’s journal from the year he moved to America: 1981! In it we also found an essay he wrote about his experience landing in New York City for the first time. (I guess I take after my dad in the whole writing essays for fun department). He mentioned his shock at the cold (it was January), but then spent the majority of the essay recounting, seemingly baffled, his experience with a customs agent at JFK airport. 

My dad recounted that the agent opened up his bags to inspect them, unwrapping several food items he had brought on the journey; one of these food items was stockfish, which tends to have a very strong smell. My dad detailed how the customs agent openly complained about the smell of the fish, and made several snide remarks about the foods in his bag. My dad, new to the US, and the particular brand of rude that is New York etiquette,  was astonished. In his essay, he questioned whether this man realized that he was an ambassador of his country. Didn’t he know that he is the first American many are coming into contact with? Is this how he represents his country?? 

As an American who grew up with post-9/11 airport security, I find this comical. These days most of us know that going through customs is a generally uncomfortable and oftentimes frustrating experience, and no one, including those getting paid, wants to be there. But to my dad, as a new immigrant in 1981, this interaction merited an entire essay!

* * *

Several weeks ago I made a quick trip to Manhattan, New York City for a work event. Unlike many others, Americans or not, I am not enamored by the city. While there, on the phone with my mom, she asked me, “How’s New York?” “Loud, crowded, dirty,” I responded without any hesitation, to which she replied a vindicated “mmhm!” New York City is one place for which my mother and I share a mutual distaste. Though I was born in New York City, I only spent the first four years of my life there, so for a long time it was an idealized dreamland in my mind’s eye. However, as I got older and got to know myself better, I realized that, for me, New York City’s quick pace and “attitude” were more headache-inducing than heartwarming. My mother, on the other hand, had my brother and me convinced that she was allergic to yelling for a significant portion of our childhoods, so that’s probably an indicator of how she would take to the Big Apple. 

That being said, as I roamed the streets of Manhattan, which I perceived to be much too busy and confusing, I couldn’t help but think about my mother and what  her immigration experience must have been like. My mother came to the United States as a new immigrant in the early nineties, she was young, well educated, and highly fashionable (honestly, you should see the pictures!), and New York City was her very first experience outside of her home country. I was in New York for less than 48 hours as a well traveled millenial with a smartphone and Google maps, and still I was overwhelmed. As I walked around midtown Manhattan, I found myself looking around and wondering how did she do this? I really admire the mental strength it must have taken to overcome the culture shock and not only survive, but thrive!

* * *

I wrote the above portion of this post when I was about half-way through Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Patsy. Patsy tells the story of a young woman who immigrates to New York City from the small town of Pennyfield, Jamaica chasing after love and the American dream. I was particularly intrigued by Dennis-Benn’s impressively realistic and nuanced narration of Patsy’s astonishment at the chasm between her idealized American dream and the reality of being undocumented and jobless in New York City. Patsy’s bewilderment at her whirlwind of experiences upon arriving in New York reminded me of my own recent experience and inspired me to reminisce on those of my parents. 

Then Patsy’s story took many unexpected turns, the kind of complex curveballs that make a novel really loveable! Those same kinds of twists that leave me scrambling to relate this book to the blog post idea I started with 200 pages ago! 

But that’s really the thing about migration, isn’t it? You might head off in a certain direction, with grand intentions and a well thought out plan, and find yourself a decade later with a life you never imagined. I marvel at the bravery of my parents’, Patsy (despite her fictional status), and so many others who immigrate from all corners of the earth to New York City in particular; I mean, talk about betting on yourself! And I am awed by the fortitude of migrants all over the world who leave homes and make homes because of necessity, ambition, adventure, or any combination of an unending variety of reasons. I aspire for your class of self-assuredness and I dream to follow in all of your footsteps.