THE BIG APPLE VS THE BIG MANGO
By Andrew Biggs
I am typing this column in sub-zero temperatures on the other side of the world.
I worry the icicles on my fingers may play havoc with the inner workings of my MacBook Air, as they rattle and break off my fingers. An exaggeration, perhaps, but that is how it feels. I am shivering, frozen and, in part, shriveled.
So where am I? You call it New York. I call it a refrigerator.
I am in the United States on vacation, celebrating my very first Thanksgiving with my extended family in Washington DC.
I was forewarned about this unique American event. I was told it was an annual celebration where American families gather to give thanks, after which they dredge up every skeleton in the family closet and push each other’s buttons to the point of inducing flying crockery, all the while filling up on variations of high-caloric mushy food that could be consumed with a straw.
The yanks call that a special event? Sounds like every day in my home country of Australia.
My Thanksgiving was wonderful with so many memorable moments … the most memorable one belonging to the ANA flight attendant as we touched down at Dulles.
“Welcome to Washington DC, where the temperature outside is minus four degrees,” she said in broken English.
“You’d think they’d find better English speakers to make these announcements,” I said to the woman seated next to me. “I could have sworn she said minus four degrees.”
Alas, her English was not broken. Frozen, perhaps, but not broken.
I have lived in Bangok for 24 years, a city whose median temperature is 31 degrees Celsius. A popular Thai saying is that the country has three seasons: “hot”, “very hot” and “fornicatingly hot”.
We had a freaky day about a year ago when the Bangkok temperature went from 31 degrees one day, then all the way down to 18 degrees the next, only to shoot back up to 31 degrees.
In December the temperature can drop to perceived freezing levels, which are around 25 to 28 degrees Celsius. That’s when you see security guards wearing beanies and ear muffs, rubbing their gloved hands together as they shiver through their mid-twenties days. Celsius, dear reader, not Fahrenheit.
“It’s a cold snap,” my American sister gaily informed me upon my arrival in Georgetown, DC, though how anybody could be gay in sub-zero temperatures was beyond me. Nevertheless she was right; by the afternoon I was unable to smile, my ears were numb, and my speech sounded as if I’d spent the morning doing vodka shots, something I would have gladly done had I not feared my fingers would fuse with the shot glass.
I am now in New York City, and a relatively warm 5 degrees.
The last time I was in New York City was in the late 1980s when the movie Batman was a hit. I only remember that because I caught a cab back then with a taxi driver dressed as Batman replete with cowl and underwear outside his tights.
What a magnificent city. I witnessed the turning on of the Christmas lights at the Rockefeller Center last Wednesday night. I’ve been to Broadway shows. I’ve eaten a salted pretzel. I’ve purchased a Metropass for the subway.
A couple of things seem very apparent to me as a long-term resident of Bangkok.
First, everybody talks here. I mean, everybody. If it’s not to convey an opinion, then it’s to strike up a conversation with a stranger that often doesn’t require a hello or goodbye. It is more a quick exchange of information.
“Which way to West Broadway?” my New York native friend Niki asks a man on a cellphone at the lights in Little Italy.
“Straight down Mott Street over there, then turn right,” he says.
That’s it. End of conversation. It sounds abrupt and uncaring on paper but actually both participants sounded civil and friendly.
But it does go against every example of an English conversation I have ever used in a classroom. Niki should have begun the conversation with an “Excuse me”, after which she should have employed a more well-mannered: “I was wondering if you could tell me the way to …”
At the end of the conversation, she should have said: “Thank you, kind sir,” to which he would have replied “You’re welcome.”
Not in New York you don’t.
While Thais may take the crown for good manners, New Yorkers aren’t so interested in being polite as they are wanting to impart knowledge to total strangers.
On the subway people actually talk to each other. I stood next to a woman who was accidentally bumped by a man who apologized.
By the time I got off at the next stop, she had explained to him she’d been to an off Broadway show with her daughter Leslie which wasn’t so great but at least Leslie was going to shows which took her mind off her divorce from a deadbeat dad known as Luke whom she had warned Leslie about way before she decided to marry him but she went ahead anyway and now they have a three-year-old daughter Jessica.
All this to a total stranger.
On another crowded subway today, a black American man dressed in construction gear stood up for a well-dressed attractive yuppie (as we used to call them back when Batman was a hit).
“Oh no,” she retorted. “You’ve been workin’ hard all day, you need the seat more than I do.”
“But my mama always taught me to stand for a lady,” he replied.
“No she’s right,” chimed in another black guy dressed in construction gear. “You’ve been been haulin’ concrete all day, man, doin’ an honest day’s work. He’s one of Obama’s men, givin’ a black man an honest job to do.”
And so the conversation fans out; not for long, but enough for everybody to give an opinion.
And that’s just it. Here in New York, everybody wants to be heard. Thailand may be the Land of Smiles, but the USA is the land of Communicating, and nobody does it better than the New Yorkers.
We could learn a lot from New York politically as well. When I was here last, there was a nervousness about being in New York. Crime was rife and there were parts you just didn’t go near.
The city has benefitted from three terms of staunch conservative Michael Bloomberg as mayor. Crime is down and the economy is up. So who do New Yorkers elect to replace him? The opposite end of the spectrum … a staunch liberal. By a landslide.
That staunch liberal is Bill de Blasio who won the mayoral elections just last month. So New York jumps seamlessly from a staunch conservative economist to a bleeding liberal married to a black woman with a 16-year-old son called Dante who sports an afro straight out of Soul Train.
Why can’t we do that? Jump seamlessly, I mean, not sport an afro.
I always believed Bangkok and New York were similar. Towering skyscrapers above a cacophony of people all heading in different directions to different places.
I realized tonight, on the eve of my return to Thailand, that New York is the polar opposite of Bangkok.
New York is a freezing cold city full of people wanting to communicate and exchange information.
Bangkok? A swelteringly hot city full of people who don’t want to sit down and exchange opinions and solutions. Which is the better system? Do I even need to ask that question?