It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon when I arrived at 500 Riverside Drive, Manhattan.
I stepped out of a Toyota silver car and dragged my two luggages in large and small sizes towards a building. It was a thirty minutes ride from the JFK International Airport to Manhattan and I paid $60 to the Lyft driver, an Asian man who shared his story on the long waiting for a green card. Spent too much money on the transportation but it was impossible for me to take a public train while having two luggages with me.
Maybe you are questioning my motive to bring two luggages to New York. So, here is a bit of the background.
When packing my stuffs to go back to Jakarta from Lincoln, Nebraska, I found out that I had one luggage of books. As an international traveller, you are allowed only to bring two large sized luggages with specific weight. If you have more than two luggages and with extra weight, you will need to pay more. Since it was an international travelling, one extra luggage would cost me up to $400. So, in the midst of my confusion on what I should do with the precious books, my ex, a white American guy, called me.
“How are you doing with the packing?”
“I am having a headache now.”
“I have a luggage of books that I can’t bring home. My luggages are already full with my stuffs while living here. And I don’t want to pay extra $400 only for a luggage.”
“Just put them at my place.”
And that’s it. I did not realize at that time that it was a very bad decision I made: leaving your most valuable things in your life to your ex!
Wait, don’t ever think we would become lovers again. Nah. We were still communicating and I thought it happened because he did not have many friends. And maybe he just felt lonely. But the feeling, the connection as a romantic partner, was not there anymore. So, in an effort to move on and do a clear cut exit, I brilliantly said yes to his offer to put my books at his place. And the next day, he picked them up at my apartment and brought my books to his place. By the time I was in Jakarta, I realized on how stupid I was. So, I brought two luggages to New York and planned to use one of them to put all of my books. And do a clear cut exit. But that’s merely a plan.
Back again to the story.
After arriving at Manhattan, I called Ndaru, a lecturer from University Indonesia.
“Here we go,” I said to myself. From Jakarta to Lincoln, now to New York City.
I remember a friend teased me when I first came to the states two years ago and giggled. That friend must be very surprised to know that I finally came studying in New York.
You will go to Lincoln? Are you kidding me? You want to go to New York but ending up in a rural state like Nebraska?
An old friend, Tera, who is currently taking PhD in California introduced me to Ndaru via phone when I was still in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“Oh, you are going to Columbia? Ndaru is currently teaching at Columbia. You can call her and ask about apartments there at New York,” said Tera. At that time, I was not one hundred percent sure of taking my scholarship. But, who knows that two months later I was standing in front of an apartment building in Manhattan.
Even though we never met, Ndaru kindly offered me her place at the International House before finding a permanent apartment when she knew I would study a short program at Columbia.
“My place is not big, I remind you and don’t be surprised,” Ndaru said on the phone. “No, no, no, it’s absolutely okay. And thank you for hosting me for a week, “I replied.
In front of the International House, a guy with a black long coat and a black umbrella came out of the building. At the same time, one of my luggages was sliding off the sidewalk to the street because I did not hold it. He ran and caught my luggage. “It seems that you need a help,” he said with a careful tone. I replied, “thank you,” and smiled to the first help I received upon arrival in New York.
Inside, Ndaru was already waiting for me and she helped me to bring my luggages to her room.
“Welcome to New York!”
On the next day, we decided to chat at 125 Jin Ramen near the 125th st Station and Broadway Avenue. The restaurant, located in the end of the street, was small yet full of diverse customers. Youngsters with different skin colors came to eat at this place. Some tables were occupied by couples.
“This is quite famous ramen place in Upper West Side,” she said and said that Manhattan belongs to the Upper West Side area. A place where the rich Americans and those ivy league students live including us, she joked sarcastically and I laughed.
“And where do the low class people like us live here?”
“Mostly in Queens and Astoria. Many young people like us live there. The rent is more affordable than in here,” she explained.
The price of the noodle at the 125 Jin Ramen was around $15-$20 per bowl. A waiter who looks like a bodybuilder came and asked our oder. “One spicy noodle, please.” I told him. Ndaru ordered a non-spicy noodle.
The price honestly was quite expensive for me. Since I came with a very tight budget, I had a tendency of calculating every spending carefully. Even when I was still in Jakarta taking care of my visa transfer, I already made a note, for which I promised to stick with it wholeheartedly, on how much I should spend for eating, rent and buy the flight tickets.
If I spend $15 for each dinner I had, It meant I would spend $120 only for dinner in a week. And in a month, it would be $480. Too much and I would end up eating only a small piece of bread for my lunch time if I did that.
Ndaru shared her experience of living in NYC. “When is your program started?” she asked.
“23rd of May. The welcoming day. When is your flight to Jakarta?”
“Two days after you start your study.”
She then told me about cool places to visit at NYC, like the great bars where youngsters like to hang out (and where you could see good-looking guys, too), some affordable but qualified shopping markets around the neighborhood, as well as different boroughs in NYC like Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island.
“If you take the train from the station near Bronx, be careful to watch your step while your walking there from here.”
“Why is that?”
“Sometimes you can find dog feces along the sidewalk,” she said. “It’s a bit different the nuance and the hygiene with the neighbor here, but I love the crowd there.”
I got fascinated but stopped her and explained my situation. At this point, I could not think of entertaining myself. “Uhm, you know what, I need a job. Do you know where I can get one?” I said sheepishly.
I NEED A JOB. The sentence that I had never ever said in my entire life.
The sentence sounds for me as if you are an incompetent and a couch potato who is unable to impress any potential supervisors of your skills and abilities.
It was quite hard for me to say that because you were used to get jobs easily back then in your country. A job with a good salary looking at your education and working experience. A job which gives you benefit to a level of being able to buy an expensive sedan car.
But that night… the words slipped from your mouth. As if you are begging for a job because you could not get a decent job when in fact it was actually only a matter of another thing. Your status as a student. And this is not a job where you can buy a car that you are looking for. This is a kind of a job where you need to have to pay the rent for your apartment and to eat. And I repeatedly said to myself: it is okay. And, anyway, this is New York City not Jakarta.
Ndaru quickly answered,” what a coincidence. I just came to Bali Kitchen at the East Village. The owner offered me a job. But, I would go home soon. Maybe you want to give it a try?”
Coincidence. How my life is filled with series of coincidences lately.
The information on the scholarship. A former Columbia student contacted me via social media asking about Fulbright scholarship and told me about the Columbia program (I did not search for this program nor the scholarship but it found me). Not very willing but said to myself to give it a try. I applied and got the scholarship.
The NYC thing.
The help from an American host family.
The meet-up with Ndaru via an introduction from a friend which led me to one week free stay when I had not had found a permanent apartment to live.
Now, she told me about this job.
It is as if a force is moving out there, out of your control. It is invisible but you can feel it is happening. It gives you challenges (as life won’t always be sugar and candy) but it also pushes everything forward up to this point and clears up your way. That’s how I feel with this whole situation.
I nodded. In this level of life, I started to believe and enjoy the beauty of an unexpected incident. Like sometimes, what we see it is not always what it seems. In my controlled world and perspective, going to New York without enough stipend was a big NO. Like… can you imagine yourself not being able to eat while studying there? Like… how are you gonna pay your rent until the end of your study program? Or… are you sure you will be able to get a job because of your status as a student? But I am lucky to have a friend like Inez, Denny, Franklin or Wahono while studying in Lincoln who always remind me on the power of trust, to life and to yourself.
Inez, for example, came to Lincoln to study with a financial support from her parents. But, suddenly, her parents went bankrupt and they could not afford to pay for her tuition. The choice is only two: leave her study and go back to Indonesia or continue but working as hard as possible. And she chose the latter. Working first in a restaurant as a janitor, cried a lot because she was used with the luxury life her family had provided her in the past, but then she completed her degree and now? Be a manager.
Ndaru then shared the owner’s number. An advice from Inez before I flew from Lincoln to Jakarta to change my visa from J1 to F1 echoed in my head. I remembered discussed with her about the non-stipend situation and she said, “I believe you will be able to survive and find a way there. New York is a tough city but you’re such a tough girl. Have no worries.”
So, I texted the owner. He replied in just minutes. “Come and meet me at Bali Kitchen.”
Two days later, after finishing my class at Columbia, I headed to the East Village (East Village is one among several boroughs in NYC that is famous for culinary and hipsters).
I took the 1 train from the 116 st station in front of Columbia University. Changed the train at 23rd street station and took an F train to the East Village. After stopping at the 2nd Avenue station, I walked for ten minutes, or three blocks to Bali Kitchen.
The neighborhood was full of bars and small-sized restaurants. People stood outside and in the streets were the type of creative and spiritual ones. Along my way to Bali Kitchen, I passed a yoga and meditation center, Bhakti, and saw women with their yoga clothes. You could also see a lot of delivery bike riders speeding in the street. Most of them were from Indian descents. Later on when working in the restaurant, I realized that they needed to speed because time was equal to money for them. The more you deliver, the more money you get, and the demand for delivery food is high in NYC.
The closer I was to the Bali Kitchen, the more giddy and anxious I was. I often watch those movies where you find the main protagonists working in restaurants, in shops while living in NYC. Even if you are that smart or talented or having great job back in your country, sometimes it means nothing in another part of the world. I observed and were amazed by these people. Despite of their struggling life, in my mind these people are full of energy and passion. They are alive. Living their life to the fullest.
But a movie is still a movie. That day, I realized that the reality was much more intimidating and less inspiring than in the movie. All that cheers from friends when they knew I would go to New York felt like insignificant for now.
I am a journalist who have traveled to a conflicted area, an isolated place where electricity would shut down after 8pm and you sleep accompanied by howling dogs all night long, and a place impacted by a massive earthquake in Indonesia, but still I was uneasy of a job interview to work in a restaurant. I felt silly. But then realized, the plain fact and truth: I don’t have any experience in this field.
Several minutes later, I finally came at Bali Kitchen.
The restaurant – though it was not that big because the rent’s fee for a shop in an area like East Village is so expensive – is nice. I like the ambiance. I like how they design this Balinese style restaurant. It was funny how I had spoken to my friends in Lincoln whenever they asked about my plan that I just wanted to have a vacation to Bali after graduation and now I would apply a job at a Balinese restaurant in New York.
I texted the owner saying I was already in front of the restaurant. He replied. I felt a sudden of mixed feeling. “What if” questions filled my head. What if he is not a friendly person? What if he thinks I don’t have enough experience? What if he asks me to cook?
The owner is Jazz Pasay, a food enthusiast, an Indonesian who is now living and building his life in NYC with his partner. I called him, “bang Jazz.”
We talked and he texted me the following day, “when will you be able to start working?”
I told Ndaru that I finally got the job. My first job at NYC is working in a restaurant! Little did I know, it was not only a job. But the job actually led me to deeper conversations about race and system in the states with the people there (all of them are minority and immigrants).
With Dawn, a Jamaican-American guy who really loves to cook and is crazy to play the stock market (he said that it’s the only way to earn more money outside from working hard in several restaurants), with Marc, a rock band type of guy from Puerto Rico (who becomes one of my good friends there), with Maddy, a Thailand-American with a pierced nose, and fellow Indonesians like Bang E and Lady.
Big City, Small Dream
My first week of working in Bali Kitchen was a mess. I repeatedly made mistakes. My mind is naturally very academic in thinking, not very ideal for working in a restaurant.
In general, I enjoyed doing calculation with the cash register, got nervous about the serving part and disliked the cleaning part. However, in a restaurant, you cannot choose what to do. You need to be able to do everything, from standing behind the register to restocking food and beverages in the storage room downstairs. Move and don’t think too much.
I felt as if I was a sloth comparing to other co-workers. But Bang E, Lady and Marcos always guided me patiently. After several weeks working there, my speed was improving and I became better at multitasking. I also got along very well with my co-workers.
Bang E, an Indonesian with a green card, was the head chef in the restaurant. He was more like my big brother there, telling me a lot of advice of living in NYC and was being very protective. I kind of think that he thought I was an arrogant yet naive ‘typical’ Columbia student but then changed his mind after a month.
“Why?” I asked. And he never told me the reason. He would just say,” No. You are not like the typical Ivy League students.They don’t know a lot about life.” And I took that as a compliment.
He had worked in several restaurants in NYC before being a head chef in Bali Kitchen and started his career working in cruise ships.
“I met with Jazz (the owner) in a party. A co-worker from my previous restaurant introduced me to him and here I am now,” he said.
He had a sturdy body and quite short. Having worked for quite long time in cruise ships, Bang E has a habit of speaking very outspoken.
“Lu di sini jangan bego-bego amat. Jangan terlalu baik dan percaya sama semua orang. Mampus lu (Don’t act like a fool. Don’t become too good to people here nor trust people easily or else you’re screwed),” he said that when a female Indonesian, a pregnant hipster, talked with me and asked my number when she knew I was a student. Told me that she liked to have a discussion with smart students. I said thank you but did not give my number.
At first I was a bit surprised listened to his words. Nearly protested and got angry with his choice of words. But, Lady told me.
“You should learn that he has worked in very rough and tough environment. He needs to act and speak like that to survive,” she explained.
Bang E also would always ask me to have a break and to eat. He liked to cook for all of us and we would eat together. Sometimes, he even asked Lady to buy some ingredients from the market nearby the restaurant and he would make special food for us. Since he was the head chef, he would rarely sit. If the restaurant was busy, he could stand for more than six hours. Sometimes, I watched him to walk with a limp. He never ever complained about his situation but I knew it hurted him so much. Lady said that it was because he stood for quite a long time. Just typical chef problem, said Lady.
“Do you have any dream for yourself?” One day I asked him. And he said,” You know what I want? Earning enough money and getting back to Indonesia. Living with my wife.”
“Ah, your wife is in Indonesia?”
He nodded and then immersed himself in cooking.
The more days I worked there, the more I felt my feeling and perspective towards everything was shifting. Before this, I had always had big dreams. Aiming at the big goals. My ex was also the same type of person. Even he was more ambitious than me, which at the end I realized we were more compatible as working partner than romantic partner.
Do something great. What is a life if you don’t do big things?
But here, at this restaurant, I found that life was actually so much beautiful. The dynamic and conversation happened between the workers here were real. They did not want to talk with you about, let say technology, or how to make the world become better, but they did care with how you felt and how you were doing. They knew something happened when you came to work one day with sad expression and went on silent while working. They protected you like their own family.
Their attitude shows that life is not always achieving but also giving, understanding and embracing. That life is not merely a competition to be the best. And you are not you are but the people around you.
For them, working in this small restaurant, living the life means having an empathy. Doing those little things that matter.
“Have you decided what you will do next?”
I nodded and put some bottle of drinks in the freezer and checked two tabs. No online delivery order. Lady walked towards the front part of the kitchen, sat in a chair and asked me to have a talk with her.
“We need to prepare if you are going to leave this place soon,” she said right away.
I sat but lost for words. I looked outside into the street. There was this girl who liked to sit in the long bench placed in front of Bali Kitchen and always waived to us. Two people came and joined with her sitting in the bench. One of them brought a small white fur terrier. And they laughed while adoring the small dog.
I said shortly, “I know.”
Her words reminded me of all the things that she had said to me. I saw her more like my big sister. “Utami, education is very important but sometimes to be able to survive living… you need to develop other important skills in life.”
I asked Lady one time while we were buying groceries together in an organic market near the 1st Avenue st station, “so, Lady, tell me why you finally come to the states.”
She picked an organic vegetable and said, “I got a broken heart. Hurted so much and decided to go to the states.”
I was always amazed on how life could change drastically for a person. Like what Lady had experienced. She left her old life and started a new beginning after a broken heart. I do wonder if I will have the same courage as her.
“Don’t pity me. I started a new life here. Met many new friends and a husband, too,” she giggled.
At the end of my shifts, when I already told them about my flight date, she would make a distance to me. She avoided to talk. And always going home earlier than usual. I felt sad but I did remember the words she had said one time, “you know what? It’s been difficult for us. We grow our likeness towards you. But we know you will work here temporarily. So, I try not to get attached much to that feeling, little sister.”