By Sophie Wang
I’ve been in New York for over a month now. It has been quite an adventure.
The first people I met in New York were my housemates in my first Airbnb. First, there is Corey, a lesbian from Tillsonburg, Ontario, who dropped out of high school and is now managing a frozen yogurt shop in Brooklyn. Corey used to live in a “projects” building, a New York social welfare program I’ve only heard about through references in rap songs with titles which escape me. And then there’s Karina, a Russian model who had spent her first few years abroad living in Kitchener, Ontario, of all places (what a small world!). They seemed quite content with New York, referring to our shared space with a common area no larger than my mother’s master bathroom back home in Toronto as “quite a comfortable place to live.”
I, on the other hand, was a little warier to refer to my new home as “comfortable.” But perhaps only because it was not the New York I had expected. It was not the New York that had been ingrained in my mind through six seasons of Gossip Girl, nor the one I’ve seen through my (albeit, investment banking) friends’ Instagram stories. Even Lena Dunham’s Girls made Brooklyn life seem, yes, a little impoverished, but at the very least chic. My New York was much less glamorous. My encounter with New York was keeping emergency mousetraps in the drawer under the oven. It was showering in essentially a human-sized cubby that is ridiculously small, so much so that it was impossible to avoid touching the walls when turning around. It was literally living out of a suitcase for the lack of a closet. It was walking by people on the streets at night and witnessing the marking of their territory in the same manner as a dog. And it was the frequent and inescapable male gaze of loiterers.
But the New York I’ve seen is also in many ways not so different from my first internship in Kenya, where some of my fondest memories were made. It’s loud and chaotic, where black faces are by far the racial majority—at least in the part of town I live in. There are even impromptu vendor stands at the subway terminal, selling nostalgically colourful African prints. With the weather warming, people have migrated to leisure outdoors, blasting music at all hours. Of course, unlike in Kenya where it was not uncommon for me to fall asleep and wake up to the vibration of my neighbours’ bass, my Brooklyn neighbours usually turn off their music at the reasonable hour of 1AM. But just as in Kenya, within the chaos, I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to find a diverse community of others on the same boat—other ambitious, genuine and incredibly brilliant friends, interns and coworkers keeping each other sane.
And sanity is important. Because New York is a whole different world than what I’ve been used to. This internship does not consist of lounging around, waiting hours, sometimes days, for a milestone to mark the progression to the next task, as is sometimes the case with programming on the ground. At NYHQ, there are a million and one things going on at once and not enough people to take care of them. Yesterday, I had a conversation with my boss, the Director of the UN Girls Education Initiative, about the logistics of printing and laminating little pieces of paper, a task of such menial seriousness that had fallen on her to oversee. Other days, I’m sitting in meetings with multiple international organizations planning for an event at the High-Level Political Forum, with little to contribute but an inexhaustible amount to learn. Indeed, I’ve learned more about girls’ education in my first couple of weeks here than I did in a whole semester of researching the topic.
I’m no longer living in the Airbnb where I had to lock up my belongings in my suitcase everyday with a flimsy suitcase lock because my broken window gave ready access to the fire escape. Now, for the most part, I have become a little more comfortable; I bought a little desk plant from IKEA last week. I still feel uncomfortable walking through sexually suggestive comments on the streets, and I still have to figure out some humdrum but important logistics like where I should go and who I should bill if I got sick. And sometimes I still struggle—with the chaos at work, with having to go home and work a second job so that I can afford to eat, with being far but also not that far from the people I love, and even with not always having people to hang out with on the weekends. But the inconveniences I’ve faced so far are insignificant in comparison to the sensational privilege I’ve been granted to work at UNICEF-UNGEI in New York, where I love and deeply believe in the work I’m doing, the people I work with, and the cause we are fighting for.
And who knows—maybe there’s something didactic about a little struggle?