I referenced this in a post several months back when I wrote about Redberry, a local frozen yogurt store in my hometown that revitalized my dying belief in a suburban upbringing. For the longest time, the mundane, daily rides through farmland that over the course of a decade was displaced by endless neighborhoods of upper-middle class McMansions (at an astonishing and disillusioning pace) became an irrepressible itch in my veins. All I wanted to do was escape from my suburban confinement, an existence I perceived for the longest time as an unfortunate, strangling microcosm of a “grander” life. So when I decided to go to college in New York City, the golden gates of limitless adrenaline, fun, and all that the suburbs were not thrust themselves open and beckoned me with all the allure I could feel in my 17 year-old universe.
For the most part, what I expected of city life was right on. In stark contrast with my hometown experience, which was compromised primarily of quickly-tiring coffee shop visits and really long Barnes and Noble stints, there was never a shortage of things to do in one of the greatest metropolises on the planet. As a film student, the access I had to the independent art scene- which included precious museums sprinkled along the High Line, world cinema gems at little theaters like the IFC and Film Forum, and New York’s notorious street art culture- simply blew my mind and expectations on every imaginable level. The Great Apple was undoubtedly the most incredible gift for an explorer’s soul, one that never did and never will stop giving. To walk the streets of New York is indeed to see life, every corner a living exhibit of an eternally metamorphosing culture and identity. From the streets of Greenwich Village that once made love to the beats and hippies to the wonders of Coney Island, Harlem, and Queens, what I saw in merely two years of city life transcended what I had seen in 17 years of suburban life.
But not what I had felt. The New York that fueled my mind and body was not the New York that fueled my heart.
I have always used boredom and unhappiness synonymously. When I’d sit on my couch in the suburbs with nothing to do, I allowed boredom to imply sadness, hollowness, and coldness when, in reality, none of those feelings were derived from my lack of things to do. But in the city, where there is no excuse to be bored, those feelings were more prominent then they’d ever been before. At first, I accepted the discrepancy as a product of loneliness in numbers, an oft-experienced city life sentiment. But with confusion, time and reflection as to why my heart wasn’t in sync with my mind in the “concrete jungle where dreams are made”, I slowly began to discover that the fatal flaw in my quest to city happiness was that it was anchored in dishonesty. I was trying so hard to shed the comfort I felt in my upbringing, the joy nurtured by my roots (despite their aforementioned shortcomings), that I was trying to replace a youth that made me who I am with a place and dream that, despite its seemingly idyllic facade, was too foreign to what really made me happy.
I will always have a billion more things to do in New York City than I will in the suburbs. But I will always have a billion more reasons to be happy in the suburbs and call it home. That’s because boredom doesn’t equate to unhappiness. Because adrenaline and flashing lights aren’t the only outlets to feed a soul that craves life. Community, on the other hand, truly is a fulfilling force.
It’s a realization that has been fermenting for the past two years, but only completely came into fruition recently, in the wake of the Newtown shooting tragedy that still haunts me deeply. The way that small town was able to mobilize in the face of tragedy, drawing love and comfort from a kind of nurturing community that is so inherent to a suburban upbringing, made my heart swell with pride from states away. Newtown’s solidarity in response to the senseless slaughter at Sandy Hook was a massive blow to my understanding of happiness. The elementary school teachers who wave to me years later at the grocery store, the coffee shop barista who knows my order by heart, the familiar faces who wave and smile even if we haven’t talked for years, the friends who gather at the same favorite spot for the same small-town adventures to reminisce about good old times…that’s community, that’s history, and that’s real happiness. At least for me. It’s a community that may have been forged by our boredom and internalization, but nevertheless one that warms the heart.
I saw New York City mobilize in the face of Hurricane Sandy as it has in other moments of unimaginable tragedy. It’s a city of fierce passion and commitment to its people, no doubt about it. But the aftermath of Newtown is what gave me the final piece to my unfinished puzzle of happiness. It showed me that real joy isn’t a result of what we do as much as who and what we are surrounded by. I can never speak ill of the suburban life again. Because the song of happiness has a harmony and melody, and wherever the latter takes us in our quest to fulfill our dreams, the former is what first lifts us into the air and gives us the grounding we need to soar.
The harmony of my suburban upbringing, I will never forget.
The pixels of sand in my virtual hourglass fell tantalizingly slow as I sat at the edge of my black swivel chair.
Goddamn it, a voice of fatigue screamed weakly in my aching head. Just work, just this once.
After two minutes that had stretched out into infinity, the screen lived up to its sadistic tendencies.
It was the 38th proxy I had tried on a list of supposedly functioning sites that Yahoo Answers had so incompetently provided me. The final strand of my well-tested patience had been robbed by the woes of censorship.
I was in the village of Dalingshan, China. My father, who spends the majority of his time commuting back and forth from Dongguan, had invited me to spend a month with him as I helped teach English to local children.
The first week or so of the Facebook and Gmail deprived, small-town rural experience was certainly interesting. It forced me to actively hunt for alternate sources of entertainment and thrust my head on into a cultural hurricane I was totally unprepared to tackle. It was exciting.
But after the first seven days, Dalingshan had become the bane of my fifteen-year-old existence. What the hell was I supposed to do in this godforsaken place?
When my father was done with work, we would take his car into the greater regions of Dongguan to experience city life. This was a commercial hub that, aside from its Pizza Huts and Wal Marts that I must guiltily admit provided me with some comfort and signs of civilization, at least gave me something to do.
Every time we entered and exited Dalingshan, the letdown and euphoria that became instinctually attached to my desire to escape my rural confinements were accompanied by a rather amusing image.
Without fail, at six o’clock in the evening, a modest crowd would begin gathering around a rusty black television that sat on the floor of roadside shop. On the screen flashed the hazy images of a Chinese soap opera. The first time I saw these locals flocking around the ancient TV set, I didn’t know whether I should revel in the cultural gathering or feel remorse towards their fairly disheartening circumstance.
By the time we returned to Dalingshan at about nine or ten at night, the size of the eager crowd would triple at the least. The people now occupied the space of three whole shops to look at that single screen. They laughed, they cried, they screamed. Some in genuine enthrallment with the fictional scenario unfolding in front of them. Others in drunken bliss. Regardless of why they were there, and I’m sure some came for reasons other than just the barely visible images on the TV, they came without fail. Every, single day. And during those few hours, they incarnated the spirit of humanity and an absolute, unadulterated willingness to live in the moment. In this case, with strangers, too.
The more frequently I saw this scene, the more my internet-less, boredom induced cynicism began to evolve into something more valuable. I didn’t know why those locals huddled around a soap opera struck a deep note with me until I removed myself from the moment and thought about where I came from.
I was a teenager from a well-to-do suburb of New Jersey. My town was continually ranked as one of the best places to raise a family in the US. We had one of the best school districts in the state and a ceaseless current of Ivy-bound overachievers who adorned our hallways with the gold medals of national accomplishment. Where else would you possibly want your kids to grow up?
Maybe in a place where families still eat dinner together. Maybe in a place where the concept of an uncompromising tradition of social gatherings is just as important as the numbers on the standardized test scores and transcripts. Maybe in place where people ,despite their respective problems and backstories, would come together and just live for a few hours.
Kind of like those people with the TV in Dalingshan. A town where people who had almost nothing more than the clothes on their skin and the smiles of their children found a way to make their individual relationships with the rest of the community a priority.
My proxy-less situation still tainted my immature 15-year-old perception of Dalingshan with the paints of routine drabness. But the image I took away from the experience is something that made me question the priorities of our goal-oriented society. And I seem to be remembering those people with the TV now more than ever.