I remember my first subway ride, being sandwiched between a tall gentleman reading a finance/self-help book and a young girl singing the lyrics to a song I didn’t recognize. Space has always been an overriding concern for those who choose to live in or visit the city. It feels as if everywhere you go you’re caught in the middle of a pregnant moment, always a participant and never simply a spectator. Although I have only been in the city for a couple of weeks, I still see a change in the way my body moves and feels when confined to small spaces. Even though the city alone is larger than the entire island of Jamaica, where I’m from, I can’t help but keep my hands in my pocket, my eyes straight ahead, and my steps narrow while I’m walking on the street here.
I wanted to know how my friends living in New York felt about personal space and comfort in their home versus in the city. I spoke to Roshuan, Gina, and Sayan in Brooklyn, Jon in the East Village, and Tess in the Upper West Side. We spoke about the importance of personal space during this time of self discovery. I began the interviews in Brooklyn where I met with Roshaun, who is studying engineering, and who writes poetry and speaks to his roommate in German. He told me about his love for the area he lives in and his appreciation of living in a crowded city. After spending some time with him, it was clear to me that he loved interacting with the city; he spent most of our subway ride signing “Silent Night” with strangers.
“Even though I’ve never been robbed or anything, I feel like living in a crowded city makes—” he stops. “As a part of finding yourself you need to have ‘day-to-day’ interactions with people, I think at least. In such a crowded city, there’s such a variation of different people, it helps with the development of your character.”
Gina, like many other international students, expressed hesitation about opening up to others around her.
“I chose to live in a common room instead of with my roommates because I like to be by myself, I like to have my own space. If I live with people I’m going to be forced to socialize, and I don’t want to open up to people because I feel like they’re not going to understand me because I’m from a different place, you know…cultural differences.”
She chooses to limit her interaction with her city but still rides the subway with ease.
My conversation with Sayan—an art school student—was centered around the differences between personal space back home in Jamaica and her new home in Brooklyn.
“It’s a lot different for me. Personal space back home is really different because I’m with my family so I don’t have much personal space. When I’m with my family it’s a lot of madness and constant interactions. Here I have a lot more privacy, but back home it just more comforting. Even though I may not have that as much personal space or as much privacy it’s a lot more comforting because I’m surrounded by the people I love. It’s nice.”
Afterwards, I headed to the East Village where Jon shares an apartment with four other guys. Jon’s innate hospitality is noticeable as soon as you walk into his living room. He turns right around in his chair at the dining table to include you in the conversation, filling you in on any details you missed before you came. He lets you sit on his bed and doesn’t hesitate to show you his favorite videos while sharing a piece of cake from a nearby bakery. It was no surprise that his response about personal space hinged on how he likes to share it.
“To be honest the main difference is just noise, in Jamaica I can do what I want, my neighbors don’t really care. I don’t get noise complaints. Here, I guess my personal space is less, I’ve gotten a lot of noise complaints, I’m not as free. At 12 o’clock I’m still worrying if my neighbors are gonna be annoyed. I guess you’re forced to be more considerate, it somewhat puts you out of your rhythm, but in Jamaica you’re not forced to be as considerate because you have your own space. I can just play dominoes, yelling and no one cares.”
My last stop was on the Upper West Side in Tess’ dorm. She appreciates having her own safe space but wouldn’t consider it her second home because she moves each academic year.
“Living away from home, I think it’s really important as mostly throughout the whole day I think, ‘I can’t wait to get back to my room and be by myself and have some time alone to gather my thoughts and stuff.'”
She went on to speak about her space at her home in Jamaica.
“Honestly, at home I feel like I don’t have as much personal space especially because I have three sisters and I share a room with one of my sisters. Even though I definitely feel more comfortable at my home in Jamaica, I feel like I don’t get as much alone time. Here I have a roommate but she’s always in the library. So I spend a lot of time alone in my room, even though I’m not as comfortable in this room I enjoy the time I get by myself.”
My conversations assured me that my physical adjustments were nothing new, and that we all breathe a little easier at home.