From Melbourne to New York and Back Again
Mia Abrahams moved to New York in the spring of 2015, and returned to Melbourne just as Tara Kenny was arriving in Manhattan in the winter of 2018. After hitting it off over a night of cocktails and a gay cabaret show during Mia’s last stretch in the Big Apple, they decided to keep the flame alive by sharing their many emotions about building new new and new old lives as email pen pals.
On Sat, May 26, 2018 at 10.05 PM, Tara Kenny wrote:
So I got to New York towards the end of November 2017, tragically not long before you moved back to Melbourne. The first days (or weeks tbh) were kind of physically and emotionally punishing for me. Right before arriving I had been in tropical purgatory in Sri Lanka waiting for my visa to come through, enjoying the time with my extended fam but very thirsty for youth contact and excited to start a shiny New York life.
I arrived just before Thanksgiving weekend and pretty much immediately just felt so cold, alone, and purposeless. I wasn’t working for the first couple of weeks and spent a lot of time running around the fucking freezing streets trying to find a workable wardrobe and wondering what I had gotten myself into. Obviously it wasn’t a surprise to not know many people here, but for some I didn’t really think about that too much before arriving and finding myself alone a lot of the time. I think I was expecting that I would just slide seamlessly into my boyfriend Sam’s social life before I built my own world, but in the beginning he was super busy and working really late all the time.
I’d been to New York before, and once for three months, but New York in winter is a whole other thing. I really couldn’t recognise it as the city I had previously fallen in love with. After being in the tropics for three months it just felt like a harsh, grey, capitalist hell (lol). I think it was extra hard arriving in winter not knowing people because everyone’s hibernating with their established friends and I was like, “Who the fuck’s couch am I meant to be watching movies on?” I remember getting a drink with you and being so grateful for the human contact!
Lol, reading over this I sound like a TRUE sad sack, but it was hard so I stand by my despair for the most part. What about you, how were you feeling a couple of months out from leaving New York?
On Mon, May 28, 2018 at 5.54 PM, Mia Abrahams wrote:
Oh yes, winter is *not* the city's easiest time. November & December are okay because it's so festive and Christmassy — my first Christmas I even made my housemate come with me to buy a Christmas tree even though I'm 110% Jewish and have never celebrated Christmas before lol. She was like 'I can't believe you're making me help you drag a tree up our five floor walkup'. I just got so swept up in the season.
Then the holidays are over, and it's just cold and dark for so long. And it's quite a physical experience that I think coming from Melbourne I was really unfamiliar with. You're constantly doing the dance of wearing too many clothes or not enough, and trying to remember where you put your gloves and scarves and hat. Also ice and snow are hard to walk in! Trying to navigate subway stairs wearing all the clothes you own and not slipping and breaking a wrist while running for the train... every day is a battle. So I feel you.
Anyway, I was having a tough time the last couple of months I was in New York (actually that night we met for a drink I remember I had been crying on the way there and I was like – I hope Tara doesn't think I'm a crazy person for this dramatic tear stained ~lewk~). I was in between apartments, actually living at my cousins’ place on the Upper West Side. I was sleeping in my cousin's bunk bed while she was at college and eating breakfast with a family and cute puppy every morning then leaving this lovely doorman apartment on Nora Ephron tree-lined street and going back downtown into my shit show of a life.
I think loneliness in New York is an interesting thing because obviously, you're constantly surrounded by people. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you are having meaningful interactions, or connecting with people outside the barista or the deli guy. And there's really no substitute for friends! And it takes time. I think the thing I underestimated about making new friends as an adult person (outside the structure of college/school/work) is that you have to ask someone to hang out then ask them to hang out again then hang out again and so on. And that was definitely a new thing for me, coming from Melbourne where friends just kind of happen by osmosis.
One of the things that became quickly apparent to me about settling in New York is that you need to establish your own world – whether that's a physical space or a person or people — so you can anchor yourself to something.
I'm curious, has NY started to fulfil your expectations? Or is it becoming a different city than what you imagined it would be? What was your first "oh wow this is so New York moment"? What else has surprised you about the city?
On Mon, May 30, 2018 at 9.31 AM, Tara Kenny wrote:
Firstly, your tear stained look was definitely relatable content! Praise be, things have definitely picked up for me since those early (literally and metaphorically) dark days.
I think you’re totally right about the need to create your own world, and seeing that come together has been one of the most rewarding things about New York for me. I’ve been working mainly remotely for the last six months – from co-working spaces but not on projects with people in my physical space – which was quite isolating at times. Luckily a couple of months ago I joined The Wing, a women’s only co-working space, and it has really revolutionised my social and work life. Being new to the city and finding myself in a lot of unfamiliar spaces has really made me reflect on what makes a truly safe and welcoming community space, as opposed to one that just brands itself as such.
I’ve also been able to do some amazing courses and pursue friendships through side projects and shared interests: writing for a South Asian diaspora publication called Kajal which is based here, volunteering at collectively owned bookstore Bluestockings, and taking a short course designed to help you access your subconscious mind at the New School. Literally everything for everyone exists in New York, so once you find your groove it’s pretty intoxicating, as you know.
I’ve also had to become really proactive about making friends, because there is literally no other option. In the beginning I had a couple of really nice chance encounters but failed to close the deal (lol) and then regretted it afterwards. So I’ve become a lot more upfront about exchanging contact details with people I vibe, and through that process have realised that a lot of people also haven’t been here for that long and are down to connect. At the same time, I’m also getting a lot more comfortable with not having the same depth and width of relationships I have in Melbourne, having only been here for a hot minute.
Most of my friends in Melbourne are from a fairly homogenous socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and everything else background, so the sheer diversity of people I encounter here is one of the most enriching things. Another thing that really impresses me about America is the nuance of the cultural conversations that take place. I mean, diversity in Australian media pretty much doesn’t exist, where as here you have Cardi B, a pregnant black lady from the Bronx, leading popular culture. Not that there’s not huge social discord and inequality, but I think that representation and idolisation of black culture is important, and something that Australians are evidently not yet capable of with our minorities.
As for New York moments I sat behind Ed Sheeran at Miss Lily’s, if that counts?
I’m interested in your reflections on Australian culture with (three?) years of distance, and how you’ve generally found that transition… Are you making a new Melbourne life or sliding back into your old one? How are you adjusting to the pace, the socialising, the physical space?
On Mon, June 10, 2018 at 8.55 PM, Mia Abrahams wrote:
Hi hello! So sorry for my tardy response!!
Ed Sheeran at Miss Lily's is a MOOD. I saw Jake Gyllenhaal at Kikis one time and I nearly melted into my taramasalata.
I'll dive right in. I totally hear you on the nuance of cultural conversations that exist in New York (and maybe more broadly in America?). I wonder if that also has to do with making friends or being around people, like you said, that aren't from the same background — which is so different from life in the Melbourne bubble.
I'm not sure whether people are more comfortable talking about things like race or there's just more vocabulary for it in New York. And perhaps Americans would disagree with this anyway, in a time when their country is so divided over these issues — I acknowledge the NYC bubble is real, too.
I think it's a really interesting point you make about ~our lord and saviour~ Cardi B and media representation in Australia vs the US. What do you think is stopping Australian media from celebrating our own Cardi B or Ava Duvernay or Atlanta or Insecure... because obviously we have talented women and people of colour making art... I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this because I think it's something I've been rolling around in my brain since I've been home.
I think even the way we've dealt with visiting overseas artists/authors of colour (the Roxane Gay/Mama Mia fiasco comes to mind) is maybe an interesting indicator of where we're at with this stuff.
Having said all that, I think I have noticed a shift since I've been gone from Australia, and either these kinds of conversations are happening more here now, or I'm just paying more attention to them — most likely a bit of both. So that's a positive. Going to the Solange concert in Sydney recently was an interesting experience actually, and I was happy to see a pretty young diverse crowd there. And I was also glad The Guardian chose Nayuka Gorrie to write their review!
In terms of my reflections on Australian culture — and lol talking about "Australian Culture" reminds me of that meme that's like, "think white people don't have any culture, um try again sweetie" — I think I'm still figuring it out.
The first couple of weeks everything felt very bright and light and like fresh after the grime of New York. My parents live in Richmond and everyone's ponytails looked particularly bouncy and butts were firm and the flowers in the florist were highly saturated and it just felt like — wow it's NICE HERE. Even now I live in Carlton, it's very niiiiiiiice but so quiet compared to the constant noise and energy of New York that I found mostly invigorating and sometimes tiring.
I was just listening to Nights (Frank Ocean) and it took me right back to when I first heard the album Blonde — walking out of my old apartment on Avenue A and really. listening. to. the. music. and. feeling. the. feelings. I think all my experiences with music, books, movies — whatever — were really intensified by the background of the city around me.
I feel like New York is a city that’s made for artists, in that it’s so inspiring, energetic, and full of creative people (even though obviously it’s now so hard for artists to live there bc gentrification and it’s so damn expensive). How have you felt writing in New York compared to writing in Australia, or consuming art in general?
Sorry if that was so many thoughts in too many directions.
On Mon, June 11, 2018 at 11.48 AM, Tara Kenny wrote:
No worries re the delayed response, I’m in Barbados renewing my visa with a lot of time on my hands so I’m going to eagerly respond right now.
I think it’s fair to say that Melbourne is multicultural, mainly in specific enclaves, whereas in New York over 50% of people are black or hispanic plus there’s all the other really visible religious and immigrant communities. So that’s just a level of diversity I’ve never existed within before. I think being around people from all walks really breeds self acceptance which has been another positive side effect.
Here I have more direct interaction with people who have totally different life experiences to me, whereas in Australia accepting intense differences was often abstract. Of course people shouldn’t have to be best friends with a Muslim person or a trans person to accept their experience as valid, but I think there’s a whole other level of understanding when you can talk directly to people about what it was like growing up in a post-911 America, or taking hormones as a teenager to transition. Obviously these communities also exist within Australia and around the world, but for whatever reason I have greater exposure to more here.
I think the dominant (ie white) culture of Australia has a really unfortunate habit of erasing or expecting everything else to just fall into line with its practices, which may be one reason that the mainstream cultural conversation around race is still at the first stage of the expanding brain meme. Our whitewashed media is just another manifestation of that. Benjamin Law’s The Family Law, which came out in 2016, was the first Australian show with a cast of Asian main characters despite the fact that there’s been significant waves of Asian migration for decades. It’s a joke, but thankfully things are marginally improving.
In the United States it’s pretty phenomenal to witness how black culture leads popular culture. That doesn’t mean that it actually results in real improvements for the black community, but at least you have pop culture figures shining a light on inequality really prominently. Donald Glover was recently quoted in the New Yorker saying, "Rap is ‘I don’t care what you think in society, wagging your finger at me for calling women “bitches”—when, for you to have two cars, I have to live in the projects.’” I feel like in Australia when media personalities speak out really frankly they get thrown under the bus, a la Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
As for consuming art in New York, I certainly feel incredibly enriched by the access to amazing big and small fry art and culture spaces. In terms of New York as a city for artists, I think most of the creatives I meet here are absolute hustlers who are chasing commercial success rather than the kind of “artistic lifestyle” that I associate with New York back in the day, which is for sure a lot about gentrification. I’ve had to really examine my place here as an outsider who is inevitably contributing to the city’s gentrification. That’s part of the reason why I chose to live in Park Slope (which I love) but is basically a bougie mecca for young couples with babies and appears to have heavily gentrified decades ago. I would love to live somewhere like Harlem or Bed Stuy, but quite frankly I don’t think I have any business living there and pushing an immigrant family out of their home so I can have my “authentic” New York experience.
Overall this whole experience has been an incredible lesson in learning, unlearning, and discomfort, and one that I’m so grateful for. To sum up, do you feel like you have clear takeaways from your time in New York? Are you more grateful for how NICE and cushy Australian life is? More eager to continue to challenge yourself now that you’re back in Melbourne?
On Mon, June 13, 2018 at 1.27 PM, Mia Abrahams wrote:
Clear takeaways! Ahh! I thought this might be the “year of realising things” a la Miss Kylie Jenner, but surprise suprise, it hasn’t been.
I guess it’s been strange to come home to a place that is so much my *home*— because I was born here, my family live here, my friends (who I adore) live here, but I also still feel like a stranger in many ways. I’ve read a bunch of articles about “reverse culture shock” (mainly written by stressed out post French exchange students lol) so I guess I’m not alone…
And I hate being the person talking about New York all the time (she says, 3000 words into an extended email exchange about New York — at least she’s self aware lol!) because I feel like I can’t think about anything else and I’m so conscious of people getting sick of me, but, I’m still so homesick. I miss my New York friends. I miss the feeling of opening my apartment door and stepping onto the street and being immediately part of something. Time has helped, for sure, but the first month or two or three homesickness was like a hangover pulsing at the back of my eyes.
I am grateful though, of course. I’m grateful for my friends, and my sister and family, and Edinburgh Gardens and the ocean and health care. But I like what you said about learning and unlearning. I think that moving myself totally out of my comfort zone from Melbourne to New York and then moving myself out of my little world in New York to come home to Melbourne again has really just been a lesson in learning and unlearning. Learning about myself as a person, learning about the world around me and the world that’s not around me, what I take for granted and what I need to do more work on. I’m absolutely not the person I was when I got on the plane three and a half years ago. So maybe I am realising things after all!
Tara Kenny currently works in advocacy for incarcerated youth in New York City, writes for South Asian diaspora publication Kajal Mag, and hosts a woo-woo positive podcast called Mystical Sweeties. Her New York life is a work in progress.