Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Love New York

I have a love-hate relationship with New York City. On the one hand, I was born there, although my family quickly moved West by the time I was four, so my memories of NYC are contained to eating silly putty on a fire escape, sledding down what seemed to be a gigantic hill with my father right after Christmas (the mountain was actually a small hill at a nearby park), and learning to count to ten in Mandarin with my grandfather (regrettably, I retained none of those lessons). I hate New York because I find it to be a congested, dirty, loud, expensive space. But the truth is, I don't really hate it--I just find that the energy of this particular city is one that leaves me feeling slightly manic. I can blend in all-too-well as a rude New Yorker, not making eye contact, weaving through crowded sidewalks, and pushing my way with the best of them into and off of a subway.

[Look at the teeming masses; these people do not look like happy campers as they weave in and out of the city's traffic]

But I recently saw a film that made me fall in love with New York again. Or at least it made me miss New York, specifically, and all cities in general.

Definitely, Maybe falls into the category of romantic comedy, and if you look at this movie poster, you will note that your usual cast of Hollywood stars are in this one--and it's not a very diverse cast (except in terms of hair color--they did manage to find a blond, a brunette, and a red-head for this film).

But while the central cast is not too diverse, the way that New Yorkers are represented are. Now, I'm not putting a plug for this film--unless you are the kind of person who will watch most romantic comedies. I'm in that category (although I drew a line at P.S. I Love You)--it's my not-so-private vice, if you will. Anyway, what impressed me about this film was that it didn't have a typical *happy* ending, Ryan Reynolds character is both human and incredibly caring towards his 10-year old daughter (played by Abigail Breslin) but most of all, when I got to the scenes of him working on Clinton's NY campaign (the film is told in flashbacks and what brings young William (Reynolds character) to the big city are his idealistic dreams of electing Bill Clinton into office in 1992--so he is in NYC working on the NY primary), and when they showed scenes of Clinton's campaign staffers, it looked to be 50/50 in terms of people of color and white people.

[Aside: Interestingly enough, this mirrors the current campaign staff of Hillary Clinton. You all know that I am an Obama supporter, but one of the things that made me feel I could vote for Hillary is that when they did a report over the summer of the racial demographics among the various staffs of the Republican and Democratic contenders, only Clinton had a white staffer minority--40%; the rest of her staff was comprised of people-of-color, including a fairly high percentage of American Indian staffers--something you DO NOT see a lot of in national campaigns]

Where was I?

Oh Yes. The cynic in me, of course, wants to note that these were background extras--meant to give a sense of the diversity of NYC and that none of the lead or even supporting cast (with the exception of Derek Luke) was a person of color.

But what made me miss New York was that the film actually DID try to present the real diversity of the city in terms of race. And it made me realize that I miss that--I miss seeing, in an everyday sort've way, a mix of different people. Unlike with other televsion series and films, like Sex in the City or Friends or films like Thirteen Going on Thirty (a terrible romantic comedy I caught on tv the other day), Definitely, Maybe really tried to give a real flavor to the city as it is--in its messy diversity. And I appreciated that they made an effort to cast a wide range of people and to show the racial diversity of NYC--because if you watch these other shows, they make it seem as if NYC is populated by beautiful and glamorous white people. And, again, I'm not holding up this particular film as a reality check to Hollywoods'image making of itself, but I've gotten so accustomed to seeing cities mis-represented that it made me smile to realize that someone thought about the casting decisions, in terms of race, for the background scenes and tried to populate the film with a cast of extras that you'd actually find in NYC.

But more than just the diversity of the background cast, watching this film made me realize that I really do miss the energy of living in NYC or maybe just any city (San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC). I miss the vibrancy of walking down a crowded sidewalk and the stimulation of sights and sounds and smells that the city brings. I miss the skyscrapers and the throng of traffic and the ability to take mass transportation nearly 24 hours a day. And, yes, I miss the diversity--the thrill of realizing that I get to blend into a crowd and that I'm no longer "the only one."


CVT said...

I know exactly what you're talking about here. Just got back from a trip to see my parents (in the SF Bay Area), and seeing all these people of color (esp. mixed folks) all over never fails to make me think about moving back.

Another random movie that actually reflects New York's racial diversity: Cloverfield. The main characters are mostly white (but not all), but the "extras" reflect some real diversity.

Although I guess it's pretty sad that we have to get excited about how many "extras" of color there are - settling for the given that few (if any) of the major roles will be filled by people of color. Baby steps, right?

Jennifer said...

Hey CVT, I hear you about feeling like we're happy with the crumbs Hollywood gives us--OH YAY! The background extras are really diverse!


I can't watch Cloverfield--I hate anything that is suspenseful or in the "horror" genre. But I'm glad to know that Hollywood is continuing to see NYC in a diverse way, even if we don't give our main actors that sort've treatment.

Although there was the Will Smith/Eva Mendes film HITCH which was also set in NYC, if I'm not mistaken. And also features an inter-racial romance which wasn't ever discussed in such a way. So maybe there is some space, except that where Asian Americans are concerned, we're really next to invisible... (another big SIGH).

And as far as mixed-race people? Again, tough to say, right--I mean, you could make an argument that most of us are mixed in some way--but when was the last time we saw a mixed-race main character in a mainstream film...one where we KNEW the person was mixed race and it was either discussed (or not).

Do Halle Berry's films count?

CVT said...

I don't know if we can "count" Halle Berry's films on this one.

The problem with mixed-race actors is that they are often seen as "white-washed" or "more palatable" alternatives to "real" people of colour in movies. For example, Halle Berry is often seen as a "white-washed" African-American (as opposed to "mixed") that gets roles that "true" African-American women CANNOT land because they are "too black."

And that's an issue. Because I kind of agree with that (to a certain degree), but - as a mixed person - it also further supports the tendency for people to overlook "mixed" as truly being a person of colour - in spite of the fact that it most definitely IS, in terms of the way we experience the world.

Being mixed doesn't make me a "sell-out" - I had no power over that - but I still get why other Asian kids at school felt that way . . .

Jason Clinkscales said...

I waited a while to respond because for obvious reasons, this post hits home and it needed more time.

This is the only place I can think of that invokes a love-or-hate reaction out of the mere mention of the name, even from those who have never been.

Yep, have to love my beloved hometown.

I have always appreciated that there were different flavors, if you will. Yet, in all honesty, most, if not all cities are fairly segregated despite the apparent diversity.

New York City makes me scratch my head. I can get on the subway or go to a restaurant in Midtown and see everyone of different races, nationalities and accents. Yet, I come home and despite some of the changing demographics Uptown, I see mostly those of my own skin. It shows me that no matter how diverse the Five Boroughs are in terms of race, the economic realities of people separate us to the point that race and money seem to go hand and hand.

This isn't to say that there aren't well off minorities and struggling whites in various enclaves. Of course, there are. Yet, I think people who visit the city, as any other city, see a snapshot without getting a sense of what's really going on. It's not to denigrate my beloved city, but from the projects to the workplace, I found that within the Five Boroughs, there is still separation.

However, I understand the clamour for more diverse settings when you reside elsewhere. Though I don't have tremendous experience around the country, it's hard to ignore how homogenous some towns are. Mostly white, mostly black, mostly Latino, mostly Asian. It's hard to deny.

The Constructivist said...

Have you ever read Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang? Neat first-novel by a great sf writer, and very much a NY (in a China-dominated-future kind of way) novel. Nice balance to the CA-centric futurism of much sf.... Partly an out of the blue comment, but the central character is mixed.

The Constructivist said...

In other literary urbanism news, you may be interested in some of the readings from my Non-Western Literature course, what with its "Extended Caribbean Meets South/East Asia" focus.... Chamoiseau's Texaco and Naipaul's A Way in the World help put NY as a global city in a Martinique/Trinidad context....

Jennifer said...

Thanks for giving us your "New Yorker" perspective--and especially for reminding us that New York City is not a racially amalgamated paradise of diversity (and neither is SF, although I like to pretend that the SF Bay Area is the land of milk and honey).

It is a useful reminder that when we see "diversity" of race it doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't racism or that there aren't racial tensions or segregated neighborhoods.

But I think, for me, living away from racially diverse urban spaces, I miss seeing different people in public, even if in private they may be living in distinct neighborhoods. Perhaps because even if it's a brief ride on the subway or grabbing a cup of coffee at a cafe, seeing different people takes you out, even briefly, from your comfort zone. And I'm all for being shaken out of our comfort zones now and again.

And Constructivist, thanks for the reading suggestions--I'm wondering if you've ever read Patricia Powell's THE PAGODA and what you thought of it (I thought it was overly ambitious and a bit haphazard, although I appreciated her attempts at being comprehensive and with picturing Jamaica as a multiracial space).

Eastern Reflections said...

I have a love-hate relationship too, hehe. I also hate it for the same reasons you listed. I'm a southern girl, I prefer the slow-pace and also I like smiling at strangers when making eye contact, especially ones who smile back and say "how are ya?" :-p

But also, and it sounds contradictory....I love LOVE the fast living of NYC b/c it challenges me in a way. It creates a thrill. And I feel like I can disappear into the crowd easily....

I grew up in the deep south....raised by a single white father, but look distinctively Hispanic, even though I didn't really identify with it until later on in life. Grew up my entire life in an all-black neighborhood (and I mean my house was the only non-black household)...attended a small religious school where literally I was the odd man out....everyone was either black or white...no Asians, no Hispanics. and my nickname was "Pocahontas" (That still aggravates me)......so, I've had a very confusing life sometimes.

But in NYC, I really feel like I am "part of the crowd"....definitely a place I can visit continuously and never get bored...but live there? Maybe for a year or two but not permanently.

I have to see that movie....and also the Hillary thing made me think of an old article I read.