The rain-soaked tarmac outside Kennedy Airport was decidedly different from the London scene. The cars were bigger, the people fatter and louder, and the highway wider. Buses rumbled and vibrated; buildings on wheels, their tyres were as tall as the people walking in the rain. Dragging my suitcase, I asked a man in a blue uniform for directions to the suburban line into New Jersey. “Do I look like a f....n’ cop to you?” he yelled down his big basketball frame, spat and walked away. “Damn foreigner,” I could hear him swear under his breath. The man’s English cousin would have taken me aside, apologised for the appalling weather and, over a tankard of ale in a pub, given me directions, before deciding to give me a lift in his own car. After all the cultured politeness of England, it felt good to rough it in America.
My sister lives barely ten minutes out of New York City, but the space she and her family occupied was centuries removed from the high towers that dot the Manhattan skyline. One of those perennially leafy New Jersey suburbs, with two-car garages attached to row upon row of low-roofed wooden houses set behind manicured lawns and outlined with white picket fences. All the houses that line the street looked a carbon copy of each other; their occupants, though, were all different. A curiously mixed neighbourhood, full of Koreans, Chinese and Iranians, but like the long-term white residents, everyone had adjusted to the social norms of the place. That is, living quietly and privately, the curtains drawn.
Out Of The Apple, In The ’Burbs
For 12 years, my sister and her husband had lived on Manhattan island, in a one-bedroom apartment above a Greek deli and flanking Riverside Park. Barely ten minutes by subway to their workplaces and with a choice of several restaurants and stores on their street, it struck me as odd that anyone could so easily abandon life in New York for the utter melancholy and tedium of the suburbs. Beyond the home, the suburb provides no comic relief. The nearest burger joint is five miles away. If you had a hankering for ice-cream at 3 am, you’d have to drive to the next town of Teanek and hope that the Indian family running the 24-hour Shop Easy aren’t vacationing in India. Or you could stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts for their special two-day-old fresh strawberry jam tart. As long as one had a full tank of gas and a willingness to move around within a 20-mile radius of home, the suburbs are a great place to live.
Chicken Legs And Lame Ducks
On a whim, one Saturday, Steve, my brother-in-law, invited his Korean neighbours to a poolside barbeque. For an hour, he laboured away at the grill, grappling with the charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid, trying helplessly to get a flame going over a set of chicken legs that had been lathered in heavy, unappetising-looking tomato sauce. But to no avail. Every time it looked as though he had succeeded in bringing a flame to the barbeque, either the wind would pick up and kill off the effort, or the sauce itself would drip and douse the flame.
The Kim Sungs came specially dressed for the occasion and with unfortunately high expectations for the lunch. They looked down rather gloomily at the uncooked chicken legs on their plates. There ensued a strained attempt at introductions; Steve valiantly attempted to reach out to Mrs Sung for a neighbourly kiss—only to be rebuffed with an embarrassed wave. Mr Sung looked aghast. Had his brazen neighbour just made a pass at his wife?
Kim Sung had come to America to teach at a special school for Korean children. The idea was to keep the second generation Korean in touch with the language and culture of the mother country. However important it was for Koreans to assimilate into American society, it was equally so to remain on the outside. The paradox had not yet occurred to Mr Sung, who—with the exception of a rather tight-fitting blue suit—remained entirely Korean. Other than ‘Have a Nice Day’, he spoke no English, ate only Korean food and probably shopped at Korean stores in Little Korea, Flushing. I couldn’t discern if this was a twisted form of multiculturalism that only the US could promote or just another form of American largesse. Wholeheartedly Korean in background and belief, Mr Sung was a proud American.
Mr Sung picked up a paper plate and helped himself to a chicken leg, carefully choosing one from the assorted dozen lying half-baked on the grille. He saw his host bite into a piece and followed suit. With a bit of a struggle, he tore away at the flesh, but managed only to smear the red sauce onto his chalky face. “Good,” he said. Hard to tell whether Mr Sung was really enjoying the taste or merely being ‘Eastern’ and polite. The chicken was more lighter fluid than bbq sauce. I tried my darnedest, too, to be Eastern and not spit it out. The only way to keep the chicken down was with generous glugs of Budweiser. Mr Sung saw me chugging, smiled and popped his own Budweiser.