I was at the end of a three-person turnstile line when I heard the sharp sucking of teeth and multiple grunts of impatience behind me. It was my first subway ride and I wasn’t sure why people were getting agitated. Wouldn’t everyone’s turn come soon enough?
I wondered about this too when traffic stalled for a minute during one of my first car rides in New York, and the driver began to curse. Were we late for something? I didn’t think so, and the cars moved shortly after. New Yorkers, I concluded, were terrified of not being able to move forward.
I did not understand what seemed to be an enormous waste of energy in being so consumed by a few minutes’ delay. It wasn’t until a few years after I moved to the city that I understood that it was only because where I came from, discomfort was a way of life.
To me, a short line was a blessing and a minute-long stop on the street was the stuff of dreams. I had come from a busy city in a developing country where I sat in traffic for an hour each way during a two-hour commute to and from my job. I learned to be thankful for the length of my travel time because it allowed me to nap in between work and school and write analyses of the solitary hair stuck to the headrest of the seat beside me, on a bus that smelled of fruity chemical sprays, and whose seats didn’t have enough legroom for me to sit without raising my knees and spending the rest of the ride with my feet off the floor.
Still, the bus was air-conditioned and it passed many others that were not, whose passengers stood in the tropical heat and smog, the men with sweaty underarms and the women with floral handkerchiefs pressed against their noses and arms wrapped around their purses, wary of pickpockets and “snatchers” who would grab any shiny object anyone dared to wear in public.
I had a landmark on the road that prompted me to remove my watch and earrings and hide them alongside the phone I never exposed. In college, my mother urged me to hide my textbooks because the fact that I had them made me a target of kidnapping. I went to a decent university under the instruction of professors who studied in American Ivy League schools, but was run by a corrupt government system. In the ’90s, when a big typhoon hit my college town, running water was gone for weeks, and there was no electricity for months.
This meant a few things. First, the forty-person floor of my dorm that already shared just four toilets and four shower stalls now had to do so without water or power. In a few days the flies arrived and the human waste was layered in toilet paper like a coprophiliac’s lasagna. The rest of the students and I made do, pinching our noses and aiming our flashlights elsewhere when it came to toilet time. Water was rationed every few days but was only enough to flush toilets and fill a few buckets lying around. My parents bought me an industrial size water storage barrel that allowed me to shower with a dipper, but since there was no light, mosquito larvae began to live in the water. This didn’t stop my dormmates from secretly using my water at night.
The university was also not hindered from business as usual. They set up a grid of overhead wires in classrooms to hold a couple of lights connected to car batteries. In the years that followed, power failures were common and students were asked to bring flashlights or candles during tests. If the lights went off during midterms and you didn’t have a candle, sorry! Your essay would have to be written in the dark.
Throughout this ordeal (and for most of my pre-US life), nobody ever complained about things needing to be better.
But it was considered a national emergency in 2003 when the power went out for a few hours in New York City. I heard news choppers overhead as I searched the house for a candle, remembering the many nights my siblings and I made shadow figures on the walls during blackouts. When the lights went back on we would race each other to blow out all the candles in the house, screaming “Happy Birthday!” to each other, and then pretending to eat imaginary cake.
In my apartment building now, an hour without hot water is enough for mothers to begin mentioning their children’s health. I see the pain in the faces of people waiting in lines at grocery stores and pharmacies or in the mad mob of passengers waiting to board a rush hour train on the Lexington line. The tempers flare, the crazies come out, there is mention of important jobs to get to and a million things to be done.
I used to wish that everyone who made a career out of complaining be exposed to the other world I knew where nothing could be done about anything, and one turned blinders on just so they could go on with their day. As years passed I shut up about finding the joy in inconvenience and realized that nobody appreciated my candlelit shadow puppet stories when to most, a blackout meant TV shows would be missed and the icemaker wouldn’t be working.
Pretty soon the discontent that was once so foreign to me became familiar, and then eventually became my own. As I got used to a system that often responded to public opinion, I became less and less used to imperfections and stopped making do with things being simply the way they are.
In a way it has helped me set higher standards for myself and, bittersweetly, greater expectations for the perpetually flawed country I left behind. Yet sometimes when I catch myself sighing about a delay announcement aboard a subway train, I wonder where all the gratitude went for moments that stopped me from my mad rush forward and forced me to be still. I think about the ignorance of being happy that I was stuck doing nothing, and the belief that nothing could ever be wrong with that.