How Living in New York City Changed Me


How Living in NYC Changed Me

How Moving to NYC Changed My Life

The first time I came to visit New York City I was 17 years old, for my high school graduation present. I’m from a small suburban town in Southern California, where I went to school with the same kids from preschool to 12th grade. I couldn’t have anticipated that this trip to NYC would change the course of my life. I fell in love with the city and decided to change all my plans so I could live there. Here’s the story of how living in New York City for four and a half years changed me.

New Kid on 34th Street

Moving to New York was one of the most exciting times in my life. If you’ve ever moved to a new city by yourself at the age of 18, then you understand just how incredibly scary it is, too! I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t know the city well after having only visited for a week, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was where I needed to be. I applied for and was accepted to a college in Manhattan, and after working and saving money to afford the move, I finally did in January of 2012.

New York was such a culture shock for me. I had never even been in a yellow cab before. The amount of people, the tall buildings, the sights, sounds, smells- it was all such a rush! During my first four months I lived in a housing service on 34th street, in a hotel to be more specific, sharing a tiny bedroom with two other girls. Bunk beds for four months, at $1600 a month each! Hard to believe, right? Rent in the city is ridiculously expensive. Everything is ridiculously expensive. In what I refer to as “the good ol’ days of NYC,” when I was new, that was exciting to me! At the end of my time there, I couldn’t wait to not have to pay $6 for a box of Special K cereal.

“Where Are You From?”

It took New York a good six months to break me a backbone. I had to unlearn all of the social interactions I’d performed my entire life back in my hometown. You don’t say excuse me. You don’t smile at strangers. You don’t walk like a snail. During that first semester of college, anytime I would talk to people, they would ask me, “Where are you from?” It was so obvious to them that I wasn’t from the city. When I asked how they knew, they told me I was too friendly, smiled too much, and was generally too pleasant to be a New Yorker. I stayed kind for as long as I could, and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t anymore.

This isn’t to say that New Yorkers are miserable, unfriendly people; New Yorkers are the most fierce, determined, strong, and open-minded people I have ever met. However, living in a city of 8.5 million people makes it so that strangers are an inconvenience. You deal with them because you have to, but you’re not thrilled by the prospect of being sardine-canned onto the subway train or having to wait 15 minutes in line just to pay for your lunch. I became more reserved, less friendly, and tougher, because I had to. I’ve always been a sensitive person, but the city made me shed that skin. I learned not to accept mistreatment from people with my mouth shut, because that’s not what a New Yorker does. LA people talk about you behind your back, NY people say it to your face. That’s how I learned to be.

This is the view from my college looking down Lexington Avenue, Upper East Side.

This is the view from my college looking down Lexington Avenue, Upper East Side.

Trying to Find Myself

In the melting pot of people in the city, I tried on different personalities like they were clothes, searching for whomever I was supposed to be. Spending time with different crowds and changing myself to fit their mold, so they would accept me. When I was new to NYC, I had friends who were engaged in party culture. I bleached my hair blonde, lost 35 Ilbs, and desperately tried to be somebody that they thought was beautiful and fun. I had never had alcohol before- they got me drinking. I’ve never liked the club scene or having random men grind up on me in the dark- they took me to many bars and clubs. I listened to their favorite music. I sacrificed the things I really wanted so that they would still include me in their activities. It took me a long time to even realize I was doing this, to realize that I had no idea who I actually was underneath of everything I was pretending to be.

Once the time in that housing service on 34th street ended, I found an apartment with a coworker in Bushwick, Brooklyn. This was one of the darkest times of my life. I fell into depression, suddenly, with a thud, and I couldn’t see a way to get out of it. Our apartment was in a shady neighborhood, we had rats and cockroaches, and our bathroom ceiling fell down from a water leak and wasn’t fixed in the entire year we lived there. My best friend passed away. I gained back the weight I lost. I dyed my hair dark. I pushed away or ignored anyone who tried to reach out to me. I lay by myself every day in my windowless room and I wondered why, at 19 years old, I could not see any future for myself. This was my lowest point.

The Reality of NYC  

Things turned around. I allowed myself to receive help. I moved out of that apartment and back into Manhattan. I started taking college courses that changed my perspective and deepened my awareness. I got a new job and made friends that were actually interested in who I was as a person. I pushed myself to be social and to explore the city again.

I could feel myself falling out of love with the city, once I’d been living there three years, because at that point, I knew what the reality of NYC life is like. To visit is so different than to live. Living there means accepting that privacy and personal space are privileges, not rights. It means being so used to stressful situations that you forget what it’s like not to have them. It means long commutes. Working extra hours and not being paid for them. It means having somebody tell you to “go kill yourself” because you took the last seat on the train. It’s always rushing to be somewhere, get something done, and move on to the next thing. It’s velocity. It’s survival.

It takes a certain kind of person to stay in love with that city over time, but I didn’t. I wanted to leave, and so, I moved to Europe for an entire year. While I was gone, I missed the city. I missed Central Park, Artichoke Pizza, the movie theatre near Lincoln Center where they do the movie premieres- more than anything, I missed my friends. I traveled far and wide, but no place I visited was ever comparable to NYC. It is special. Bursting with diversity, full of opportunity and promise. I lived another year and a half there until graduating college, and then I moved.

On the rooftop of our apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, June 2012.

On the rooftop of our apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, June 2012.

How Living in NYC Changed Me

When I came to live in the city I had just graduated high school, with my heart on my sleeve, and dreams like constellations, sparkling in my eyes. I saw the wonder of the place and felt compelled to be there, where no one knew me, where my slate was clean. Through many up’s and down’s, heartbreak, loss, privilege, joy, and everything in between, I left New York knowing that it isn’t the place I’m supposed to stay. I appreciate the time I had there as the most important decision I ever made. It ignited my passion for travel, which will always guide me.

If you’re dreaming of living in New York City but don’t know how to make it happen, be realistic. It is going to be expensive, crowded, sweaty in the summer, freezing in the winter, the trains will be delayed, you will pay way too much for whatever apartment you find, but- if you do it, if you pull it off, you will feel accomplishment down to your core. I encourage you to go, because even if it doesn’t work out, you will have the experience of having lived in New York City. It's a pretty awesome place to be able to call home, even temporarily.

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Writer of this article is Heather, 24, co-founder of the Female Travel Collective.  She used to live in California, NYC, and Hawaii, and is currently traveling. Follow her along on her  Instagram !

Writer of this article is Heather, 24, co-founder of the Female Travel Collective.  She used to live in California, NYC, and Hawaii, and is currently traveling. Follow her along on her Instagram!