Thu, 30 Jul 2009 02:00:00 +0000

I call them kid riots.

Every once in a while, in the middle of the night, dozens of kids start yelling in the street outside my window.

The first time it happened, I thought someone was getting mugged. I rushed to be window with 9 and 1 already dialed on my phone, only to see that it was high school kids just horsing around.

Welcome to Harlem, I thought.

I moved here about a year ago after living in a ritzy neighborhood. I was terrified.

I grew up in Kansas, so I eventually got used to being the one of the few Asian kids in a town full of white people. Now I had to get used to being the only Asian person in a neighborhood full of black people. But thing is, it wasn’t about color — it was about culture.

The first time I walked to the subway, I ran into a middle-aged woman parked on the side of the road, blasting her radio and having a dance party with her friends. Thing is, I don’t dance — in fact, when I try, my girlfriend, Kristen, tells me, “Just stop. Go sit down.”

Living in Harlem was adventurous. I’d often discover culturally fascinating things.

I ran into the old men playing dominos outside on a makeshift table. I discovered a Mexican food truck that all the local delivery boys go to — and they served cow tongue! And I learned that there are lots of churches, even more fried chicken joints, and even more hair salons — but none that know how to cut long Asian hair.

People always asked me if it was safe in Harlem. I said it was. Still, people who visited me for the first time looked terrified when they finally got to my apartment. Sometimes it was because one idiot on the corner cat-called them all the way down the block. Other times, it was because, no matter how non-racist they wanted to be, it was threatening to be in a neighborhood of blacks.

In my 12 months here, I’ve learned that I’m a lot more subconsciously racist, toward all races, than I want to admit. I’ve also learned that race-relations is far more complicated than simply saying, “Don’t be racist,” or, “Accept all people.”

But, as cliché as it is, I learned that we are all so much alike.

I recently walked into the local fish and chips joint and talked to Wally, the man who is always — and I mean always — at the register. I always figured him and I were so different. But, of course, I’m going to tell you how we aren’t.

Over the past few months, Wally and I became friends. At first, he didn’t even acknowledge me when I ordered; then he started to nod at me; eventually, he asked me how I was doing. And this last time I walked in, Wally came over to the counter, rested his elbows on the surface and asked me what I do.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

And he said, “Oh, really?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And what about you? Do you just work here?”

He looked offended. “Ma’an, I just do this to help a friend. Soon, I’m gonna buy a plane and fly to Guyana.”

“Oh, so you want to buy a plane?”

“No, I’m gonna buy a plane —a twin-engine. I learned to fly in Germany, and I’ve been saving up since.”

I smiled. He looked at me and said, “So you wanna be a great writer some day and write some book?”

“No,” I smiled. “I’m gonna be a great writer.”

And in that moment, I saw our hearts behind the veil of our cultures. We may be in different situations but, at the core, Wally and I were both ambitious dreamers.

I’m moving soon. I’m going to a quieter neighborhood closer to my friends, to my work and to grocery stores that sell fresh vegetables. But I’ll sure miss the dancing, the dominos and, of course, the people.

And, in the middle of the quiet night, I’ll sure miss the kid riots, too.