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Living With Strangers
In the essay “Living With Strangers” by Siri Hustvedt, we hear about her experiences with living in two very different cities and how they and their citizens have changed her perspective on meeting strangers. In the beginning of the text, she talks about her childhood, growing up in the countryside of Minnesota, and how the people of her town acted towards each other. Later on in her life, she moves to New York City and discovers how different the urban life is from what she was used to. Not only are there so many more people in NYC, which, by itself, can be very overwhelming, but also the attitude and arrogance of the New Yorkers surprises her. In this paper, I am going to analyze and comment on Hustvedt’s essay, where part of the focus will be on the genre and the attitude to urban living.
As mentioned above, the writer grew up in an environment, where people were nice to each other and greeted everyone they met with a “hi”, even though they had never met before. To Hustvedt, this was perfectly normal, and you would be considered rude or impolite if you did not follow this unwritten rule. Therefore, it came as a shock to her, when she moved to New York City and experienced the New Yorkers and their attitude towards strangers. In the beginning, she felt weird not to greet everyone she met, but soon she realized that it would be an impossible task, considering the numbers of citizens in the city. However, she still missed the interaction with other people that she was used to having.
Not talking to people you meet on the street is not the only “law” that you have to follow in New York. Siri Hustvedt also talks about the unwritten rule called, “pretend it isn’t happening”. This she exemplifies with the incident of a woman walking onto a bus wearing nothing but a bathrobe yelling, “My token! Oh my God, I must have left it in the other bathrobe!”(l. 27). To me, this seems pretty strange, and it’s definitely something that I have never seen before. However, this event doesn’t seem to raise any controversy by the passengers of the bus. Actually, it is only Hustvedt’s friend, who seems to be curious about the lightly dressed woman, “My friend had been staring at the woman throughout the scene but was a little ashamed when he understood that he was alone. Nobody else had given the woman a first glance, much less a second”(l. 28-30) This quote is very good at describing what “pretend it isn’t happening” is all about.
The writer goes on with describing other incidents that emphasize the power of the above-mentioned rule and how vital it is to the people of New York. However, the premise of pretending something is not happening, is that you cannot react to or respond upon it. This can, though, in some occasions be a bit difficult to resist doing. To illustrate that most New Yorkers are afraid of handling confrontation, Siri Hustvedt uses an example of a man spitting on her, and her husband failing to respond. It is especially the outcome of these confrontations that the people of the city fear, and therefore it is just easier to avoid than confront.
Hustvedt is mainly focusing on the life and the unspoken laws of New York City, but I do not think that this is an isolated example of a big city with their own rules and regulations. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to visit the capital of China, Beijing. This was, without a doubt, one of the most interesting and fascinating experiences of my life. In this city, which consists of more than 17 million citizens, you are surrounded by people at every time of the day, which can be very overwhelming. In my relatively short time in Beijing, I learned that there is a huge difference between meeting the Chinese people in a store and on the street. When you meet them on a one-to-one basis, they are very kind and open. On the other side, it is almost impossible to get them to talk with you on the street, and I guess that is what New York and Beijing have in common. Even though they are two cities with two very different cultures, the people are still living an urban life, where you do not have time to speak to a stranger. Instead, you have places to go, people to see and things to do. This is the very essence of living in a big city with millions of strangers.
When you live in a big city like Beijing or New York with so many people surrounding you, it is, paradoxically, easy to get a feeling of loneliness. This is also something that Siri Hustvedt reflects on when talking about her daughter’s encounter with the “pretend it isn’t happening” law. When on the metro, her daughter, Sophie, made eye contact with a man, who immediately made her feel uncomfortable. Fortunately, this man left the train a couple of stops later, and Sophie felt relived. However, he was not done bothering her, and on the way out of the car, he yelled out something about how beautiful she was. This, of course, made Sophie feel even more uncomfortable and also very alone, considering the fact that none of the other passengers seemed to care about the situation. Then, the train went on and left the station. Had this been any other day in New York, nothing more would have happened. However, on this particular day, Sophie witnessed a man breaking the “law” and actually acknowledging the fact that this thing happened. “It looks like you have an admirer”(L. 90), the man said to her, and it immediately made Sophie feel a lot better. Siri Hustvedt describes it this way, “With those few words, and at no cost to himself, he gave her what she needed – a feeling of ordinary human solidarity.”(l. 95-96). Hustvedt believes that these brief exchanges with other people are something that we will remember until the end of our days.
As far as I can see, the writer of this essay really does have a point, and I agree with her on many of her statements. However, you should keep in mind that this text is an essay, which always should be taken with a grain of salt. In this kind of writing, the author is free to say whatever he or she wants, and therefore some of the assertions that Hustvedt states throughout the text, are very subjective and personal. Nevertheless, I really do follow her way of thinking, and I have experienced some of the things she describes, too.
However, I have never experienced living the urban life for more than a couple of weeks, so of course it is difficult for me to relate to Siri Hustvedt’s life in New York. On the other hand, you do not have to be living in a big city to understand that showing a bit of humanity in the right situations, and actually pretend something is happening, can make a huge difference to another human being.