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The city of my soul: Why I love New York

May 09, 2014 12:08 IST

The city of my soul: Why I love New York

Sumi Raghavan

Sumi Raghavan, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Bronx, on how New York's pulse and rhythm keep her going

I’ve been a New Yorker for 14 years and for 10 of them, I’ve also been a Brooklynite. The only borough in which I haven’t worked, lived or attended school is Staten Island, and I’ve ridden every single train at least once -- including the G train.

New York is less new to me than it was when I first came to the city on my own 15 years ago, but I continue to be invigorated by the pulse and rhythm of the city, the culture, the intellect, and, of course, the food. But what I love most about New York, what everything else depends on, are its people.

New Yorkers are unfairly -- and at times, fairly -- depicted as hard-edged, self-serving and cynical. But beneath all of that, we are as warm and charitable as we are gritty. That is what makes this place more than a jungle of concrete, sprouting affordable rents, over run with aggressive drivers, and less than reliable subways.

I moved to New York in September 2000, but it wasn’t until September 2001 that I realised just how madly I was in love with the city. This is either perverse -- or cliche, depending on who you ask -- but it’s also true.

New Yorkers really did band together in the last three weeks of September 2001 and the months that came afterward. For a while at least, we weren’t just riders on the subway or faces on a street, we were sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, parents and children who had all felt, sometimes with more depth than anyone should have to bear, the same thing.

As a sophomore at New York University, the strangers I had seen as freshmen suddenly seemed a little less strange.

The kindness I thought I had to leave somewhere under the Hudson was coming to the surface in random moments between strangers. The 30-foot stares were broken by eye contact.

The carefully roughened exteriors peeled back; among friends and neighbours I saw startling expressions of compassion and community. The city revealed that incredible vulnerability and undeniable resilience. It revealed that New Yorkers were deeply human.

I was a psychology major, and a few months later I discussed the possibility of graduate study with my academic advisor.

I told her my 9/11 story and she listened patiently. Then she said, ‘That’s great. But why don’t you work the cultural angle?’

I was aghast. ‘The cultural angle’ was the very last thing I was interested in ‘working,’ thank-you-very-much!

Before I went to NYU, I had felt confined by the insularity of suburban New Jersey and by the tight knit Indian-American community. Like many children slapped with the label ‘first generation’, I struggled to define an identity that wasn’t just a hyphenated version of ‘American’ and the country of my parent’s birth.

I felt simultaneously out of place with ‘American-Americans’, whose families had long histories in the area -- or at least seemed like they did -- and what I thought were typical New Jersey desis, many of whom seemed to have few friends or interests outside of the Indian community.

I had a sense that my struggle was not unique, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I ended up with an ambivalent relationship with my roots: I spoke highly of my background (my parents were from Chennai) when I was with my new friends in college, but on an unconscious level I was trying to escape it.

I didn’t make a single Indian friend in four years at NYU, which is remarkable given the school’s diversity, and the number of desis who probably felt just like I did. I yearned to explore and develop other aspects of myself, unfettered by ethnicity, the way I assumed that ‘Americans’ were able to do.

So in what passes for wisdom among 19 year olds and college students at expensive universities, I made it quite clear to my academic advisor that I had come to New York to pursue new interests and to engage with what the city had to offer. I explained that I was absolutely-not-interested-in ‘me-search’, a derisive term that refers to self-referential research interests.

I had a very compelling experience of intimacy and connectedness after September 2001 and I wanted to build my academic career from that perspective. She shrugged and responded matter-of-factly, ‘Listen, what New York has to offer is a whole lot of people who are not from here. And nowadays, psychologists need to develop a genuine understanding of cultural differences. All I’m saying is that you might be one step ahead of the game.’

I was skeptical of ‘the cultural angle.’ But a lead from my brother pushed me to take an internship with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of New Jersey, working to combat stigma against mental illness and increase mental health literacy in the South Asian community.

While I spent two years following college doing what I thought was compelling clinical research regarding substance abuse, when I was interviewed for graduate school in clinical psychology, I was asked more questions about my work with NAMI-NJ and my interest in cross-cultural aspects of mental health than about any other topic.

Professors told me that the increasing diversity of the city was creating a need for more culturally competent practitioners. Cross-cultural psychology was mainstreaming and I could have an edge.

I chose Fordham University for my doctoral study, which included the opportunity to work at the Programme for Survivors of Torture at Bellevue Hospital. Clients of the programme were refugees and survivors of political violence from all over the world, many seeking asylum in the United States.

The programme clients always greeted me with smiles, particularly those from Tibet and Nepal. When I mentioned this to a supervisor, she suggested that because the Dalai Lama was in exile in India, these Buddhist clients saw me as an ally; my dark skin and deep brown eyes were familiar and friendly to them.

I realised my undergraduate academic advisor had been right. My interests in trauma and resilience and my own identity struggles came together in an exhilarating ‘aha!’ moment.

I live in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in this diverse country. It is no exaggeration to say that millions could benefit from mental health services in this city.

But due to cultural barriers and differences, many are unable to do so. Given my background, I got that, and I came to understand that my ‘otherness’ could be a huge asset for an underserved population.

Of course, cultural competency in mental health is far more complex than having ethnic ‘street cred,’ and many highly competent Caucasian American therapists and researchers respect and understand this -- it turns out, many Caucasian Americans have more experience with their own kinds of ‘otherness’ than I would have thought.

But as I interact with diverse populations, my personal journey to find my footing here has informed my work in ways I never expected.

Throughout graduate school I strengthened my understanding of the cross-cultural aspects of mental health, while pursuing a deeper understanding of my own ethnicity. My studies culminated in a year-long internship at Elmhurst Hospital, located in the Elmhurst-Jackson Heights neighbourhood in Queens.

Each day I stepped off the F train into that diverse, largely South Asian neighbourhood and was greeted by the smiling face of Shah Rukh Khan wearing a Tag Heuer watch. I smiled back: Could there be any clearer message than sending me into the heart of Little India to wrap up my studies?

Now that I’ve earned my doctorate, I’m a member of the faculty at The College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale. Most of my students share my label of ‘first generation American’ with parents from Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.

I bring discussions about culture into my lectures, and encourage them to draw on their own experiences in discussing everything from cultural variations in conceptions of beauty to stigma in mental health.

I am also involved in research with an organisation called SAPNA-NYC, a community-based non-profit that provides culturally appropriate mental health and medical services to low income South Asian immigrants in New York City.

None of these opportunities for personal and professional development would have existed if not for the unique complexion of the Big Apple. The increasing importance of its diverse immigrant population spurred the need for more cross-cultural research and treatment just as I was entering the field.

On a deeper level, I realised I would not -- nor did I need to -- reconcile the contradictions of my own bicultural upbringing. I merely needed to appreciate it, and that would free me to connect with and serve my fellow New Yorkers.