stories from new york, #1

On New York noise and French phrases.

By Jon Chew
Photos by Jon Chew

In these early days, one big difference between New York and home is the way this new city sounds.

In Kuala Lumpur, we spend so much of our time inside cars. We insulate ourselves from the world by hiding inside our metal capsules and glass windows, making sure we’re well-protected in an aquarium of comfort. We turn on the radio, we talk to one another, we swear profusely at the motorcycle that disturbs our curated silence. There are two universes running parallel on the same road: the tiny one with the steering wheel, and the one at large we try to ignore.

I’ve found that without a car right now, my senses are engaging with the city. Suddenly, my eyes see. My ears are open. And New York is so full of strange tunes. The brashness of the way people talk on street corners! The shouts of immigrants selling fruits and bus tickets on sidewalks! Honks of taxis that speed through traffic lights! Loud shameless swearing! Hip-hop!

The city talks in a language I’m only starting to comprehend, and it’s gibberish, and chaotic, and it’s two slaps in the face.

And it’s needed. I’m putting away my iPod, more often than not, and I’m listening to the daily tale of the city, told through skyscrapers and auburn trees and homeless people. God knows, I need to learn how to listen.

My dorm. And my dog imported from home.

It’s wonderfully disorientating to live in a community again. It’s been four days since I’ve moved into my dormitory. I stay in a room, but share one lounge, kitchen and toilet with nine other floor-mates.

In this village, the bathroom has become the floor’s town hall. We only have one shower here per floor. If there’s someone using it, you wait in line. When you enter and see someone inside, you say ‘good morning’. Then, you start to talk.

Some neat chats have come out of these encounters in the toilet. I’ve found out that the person staying in my unit before me — 4B1 — was an actor called Phil who was doing an off-Broadway play. I’ve met an Indonesian who shares the same name as my brother, and who thinks everyone from Malaysia who ends up going abroad hates Malaysia (“They don’t”, I assure him).

It’s communal living. Sharing snippets of our lives as we wait in line for the shower. Maybe, this is what it’ll be like in heaven.

The Columbia University campus, with Butler Library in the background.

Two pieces of advice have stuck with me. One was from the ex-dean of the J-School here and current executive training editor at Bloomberg News, Bill Grueskin. He shared a French phrase that comes from an inscription at the entrance of a Belgian palace, now doubling as a museum into the life of a 15th century Flemish polymath called Lodewijk van Gruuthuuse.

Plus est en vous. It means: there is more in you. The original intention of the phrase can be more accurately translated as this: there is more in you (than you think).

Ironically, it was my secondary school motto. It has only taken 17 years for me to fully understand it.

The second is from my dear Star mentor.

“It is always good, that for some period of time, your best friend is Chew Chien Wei — and you have no one else to lean on, or hide from the world, or seek comfort in, except yourself and God. You can only come alive when this challenges you right to the core.”

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