United by Difference in New York City

After Hurricane Irma forced my family to evacuate, new friends from all over the world help me feel like I belong here.

by Dominique de Castro

Kai Pilger on Unsplash

A heavy pot blew through a window in a flurry of wind and rain. Just like that, the seal was broken. Pop! Pop! Pop! The rest of the windows came crashing out of the walls at the same time. Torrents of rain flooded the living room and kitchen. My family and I worked tirelessly to sweep the water out of the house, but we couldn’t block the water any more than we could sweep away the coming changes.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma was a category five monstrosity that hit Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), where I am from. She reduced cell towers to metal stumps, tore through electricity poles, and turned trees into skeletons. Grocery stores that had been hollowed out by anxious buyers before the hurricane had sunken roofs and battered walls. Our house was left standing, but the one next to ours was destroyed. Our car was also destroyed. With no means of communication, and facing food scarcity, my family and I were in a dire situation.

About a week later, my mother, two younger siblings, and I were evacuated via helicopter to Puerto Rico. Women and children were flown out first, so my father stayed behind. He spent most of his time eating coconuts until he was sick of them. We laugh about this now, but it was not funny at the time.

From Puerto Rico, we traveled to New York City where we joined our grandparents. Although the rain had stopped, Irma’s floodwaters had pushed us away from our little island and into unknown territory.

My mother returned to my father in Virgin Gorda a few weeks later. As I hugged her goodbye, I felt as if my tether to my culture and community snapped. I only had my siblings to remind me of what it had been like to climb sea grape trees or watch the mocko jumbies, performers in bright costumes who walk on stilts at festivals and parades.  

I missed my friends, but electricity poles and cell towers were knocked down so I had no way to contact them. I worried about whether they’d found food, water, and shelter. Two of my friends were able to get to family in Barbados, but I only found this out months later. I learned about a year later that one of my friends on a different island had their house flooded too, and narrowly escaped a landslide.

Loving What Is New

I learned that one thing we all shared, regardless of our religion or native language, is our love of pizza.

I arrived in late September and since I’d already started the 9th grade in the BVI,  I was allowed to continue in that grade here. I didn’t have much contact with my parents because the cellphone towers had been knocked down during the hurricane. Not living with them was difficult and I didn’t know it at the time, but it would take three years for my parents to finally be able to move here and live in my grandparents’ house with me.

Everything about New York City was different. Traveling to school was scary. I’d never used public transportation, nor had I ever crossed the street using crosswalks. The city had more traffic than I had ever seen before. The bus was often uncomfortably packed with people, which made it difficult to travel with a backpack.

I was terrified of crossing the street even if I had the walking man signal, because cars were often loud. To make matters worse, many streets didn’t have walk signals on them. On my way to school, I often stood at these crosswalks too nervous to move even if a car was all the way down the block. (I eventually got over this, and I confidently jaywalk like a true New Yorker now.)

I did not meet anyone from the BVI, but I made friends easily. A girl named Raida was in both my gym and music classes. She was friends with two other girls, and one day she approached me and we all became friends.

Raida was Muslim and I was fascinated by how she and other girls wore their headscarves. The BVI doesn’t have a large Muslim population, so I had never seen this before; I was someone who can barely wear a hat thanks to my Afro. I watched intently as my friend showed me how she concealed the pins that held her hijab in place. I loved her flowy style of dress with lots of black and purple.

I was amazed on cultural days when South Asian girls in their saris passed me in the hallways. The light reflected off the shiny fabrics and gold embroidery, making them shimmer as their skirts floated above the floor.

Hindi, Mandarin, Farsi, Spanish, and Cantonese were whispered in hallways by giggling students. One of my Afghan friends taught me a few words of Farsi, and my Dominican friend taught me a few phrases in Spanish. While my friends teased me at first about the way I pronounced words like “go” as a part of the dialect spoken in Virgin Gorda, I was excited to learn more about their languages.

A girl in my history class was Tibetan and I learned about its politics from her. While I had heard of Tibet prior to living in New York City, I didn’t know anything other than it was a country in Asia. I most certainly would not have met a Tibetan person had I stayed in the BVI. But being in a class with this person broadened my perspective and knowledge about another part of the world.

Soaking in New Ideas

In the BVI, the culture is more monolithic. For the most part, everyone speaks the same way, eats the same foods like johnny cakes and red peas soup with sugar, and participates in the same cultural events and holidays. So I was only exposed to other cultures by studying them in school. Moving to New York, however, exposed me to many cultures in person, and I found that exciting.

As I continued living in NYC, I compared and contrasted the cultures around me, soaking in the new ideas each one presented. I learned that one thing we all shared, regardless of our religion or native language, is our love of pizza.

There were other unifying experiences; my friends and I felt similar pressures as children of immigrants. Our parents expected us to live successful lives in the U.S. because they saw it as an opportunity to achieve better lives than they had had growing up.

I came to appreciate the multiple ways life intersected to create the culture of NYC. Although this did not help me miss my mother and father less or my life back home, I realized that ultimately, this amalgamation of cultures unified the city and I was included in that unity. Understanding other cultures showed me how mine was distinct, but also how they connected me to cultures from across the world. The cultural comparisons I’d made connected me to my surroundings. I no longer felt stranded in a strange land; I was part of what makes this land unique.

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