by Kyra Miles
These people stink, I thought as we scurried through the mass of people waiting to board the beat down bus that had been vandalized and painted over too many times to count. I envied them for being able to get on a bus instead of having to walk all over. We had been walking on old, uneven sidewalks all day and I had begun to wonder if my sore feet even had feeling anymore. My pink and black Nike tennis shoes that I had bought specifically for this trip because they were “the ultimate comfort shoe” had formed to my feet long before today and I swear the souls had disappeared which was causing my bare heels to hit the hard concrete.
It was a hot, humid summer day in the streets of New York. My group looked like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in our clover green 4-H polo’s and sand colored khakis. Not only were our outfits ridiculous, but as were (some of) our mannerisms. Three country boys behind me wouldn’t stop chanting “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” whenever they saw someone they thought was a little too far left on the political scale. They couldn’t grasp the concept of keeping their mouths shut if they saw someone in a tie-dye shirt. ‘Miss America One’ and ‘Miss America Two’ were captivated by the selfies they were about to post so they looked like twenty-one year old girls staggering home after a night on the town. My best friend, Hannah, and I were complaining about everything from the amount of people to the pace our guide was walking. Our guides hair was the color of newspaper. Not an issue fresh off the press, more like the article you find in an attic of an abandoned house. The out of style animal print tank top she was wearing and her khaki capris did not accentuate any of her curves. Unlike the rest of us, she was not wearing walking shoes. Her cinderblock sandals barely came off the ground with every duck-like stride she took, but that didn’t slow her down at all. She was moving faster than Usain Bolt in order to show us everything New York had to offer. You could tell by the excitement in her voice that she loved living in New York and bragging up its peaceful parks, gothic-style churches, and authentic buildings was one of her regular hobbies.
“And here we have one of my favorite streets in all of New York!” She said on what seemed like every street. “Can’t you just see the history embedded in these walls?! Think of the things these windows have seen!”
However, it was hard to hear her raspy, smokes-two-packs-a-day, voice through all of the other distracting noises.
We had just walked under the rusty, metal Chinatown sign and people were already trying to get me to buy anything from t-shirts to refrigerator magnets. The rank smell of fish and spoiled meat hung in the air like vines in a forest. I was clutching my teal purse tight enough to turn my knuckles white.
“You want to buy? Cheap shirts here! Cheap! Cheap!” I look to my left and see a market with something crawling through the vegetables, meanwhile on my right someone was buying, what looked like to me, poodle on a stick. The heavy steam coming out of the buildings ventilation shafts stuck in my hair like gum.
“Come! Come look! We have lots what you want!”
Each vendor had something I needed but for a better price than the last. My palms were sweaty and my breaths were getting more rapid. I couldn’t believe people would be immensely aggressive trying to sell souvenirs when I was clearly not interested. Couldn’t they tell I didn’t want anything since I was ignoring them?
I started out polite, “No thank you, not today,” but halfway through I couldn’t take it anymore. One of them trying to sucker me into 5 t-shirts for 10 dollars touched my arm and I lost it.
“I do not want to buy anything from you right now! Can’t you see I’m not interested?!” I snapped.
The vendor didn’t seem to acknowledge what I said, he simply moved on to one of the three boys walking behind me with the same lines and the same amount of excitement he had used with me. I was overwhelmed. I felt like the new toy at daycare that everybody had to play with until it either breaks or they get bored of it.
I finally made my way through the group over to our chaperone, Mrs. Gass, and told her what happened. She was composed. Big blue eyes, a soft smile, and a sweet voice that could always calm you down. With short sandy hair and pristine posture, one could mistake her for Maria from The Sound of Music.
“That is the way people in this culture work, they don’t mean to violate you, they are just trying to sell you their products,” she said, “just try to ignore them and stay with the group.” Due to the fast paced walking, the ocean of people, and my tired aching feet, I had gotten completely overwhelmed.
Eventually we got into a neighborhood with family owned restaurants with classical music playing in the background and the sound of children laughing while at dinner with their parents. The shops in this neighborhood didn’t have people bargaining with you as you walked by. We stepped into a shop with souvenirs covering every inch of the walls. It had bells, shot glasses, t-shirts, hats, bags, you name it. I bought two shirts that were as low in quality as they were in price and I don’t think the cashier spoke English.
“Is it anything like you were expecting it to be like?” asked our newspaper haired guide.
“No, not at all” we responded.
I was expecting to see cherry red lanterns covered with bright golden dragons adorning the streets, men in Kung Fu outfits playing the drums in perfect harmony, and little kids running around with cream colored cloth dolls that have buttons as eyes, and red stitching as mouths. Little did I know, there would be no kids, the streets would be covered in crumpled up pretzel wrappers and old McDonald’s bags rather than lanterns and more crowded than Target on Black Friday, and half of the people there wouldn’t even be Chinese.
“Hey Mert” I said as I stepped onto the air-conditioned bus while giving him the usual fist bump and grabbing one of the last bottles of water sitting in the big green cooler.
“Hi Kyra, how was it? Are you gonna move to New York anytime soon?!” he asked.
“Most definitely not” I said, “this isn’t exactly what I call my happy place!”
“Well then I better get you back to Nebraska so I can see that pretty smile of yours again!” he said with a sparkling grin.
I had never been around other cultures before, and if I had, they were always the minority. Today, I was the minority and I didn’t like it. As I looked out the hand print covered bus window at Chinatown fading away I saw the true beauty of people getting along no matter what culture they grew up in. A little girl with blond braids and a sticky-handled lollipop in hand was standing next to her mom while a simple, old Chinese man entranced her with a traditional Chinese toy. Who would have thought that experiencing Chinatown would teach me that something can be learned from each and every one of the different cultures and customs that are present in the world. I just wish I had realized it before we walked under that rusty welcome sign.
After everyone gets settled into his or her unofficial assigned seats, we number off flawlessly. By this time we all have it down to a science, like clockwork. Our guide began talking faster than the spokespeople do at the end of commercials to get all of the necessary information in before they run out of time. I should listen to what she has to say, I thought, but truthfully the only thing running through my mind was: I can’t wait to get out of this clover green polo, it stinks.