Clocking a different time

View of Seattle and the Space Needle from Kerry Park.

The moment I landed in Seattle I missed the grandeur of New York, and the moment I returned to the Big Apple I missed the openness of the West. Last night, hearing that the Seahawks beat the 49ers and are heading to the Super Bowl, I understood and rejoiced with the fans, because I have a connection with their city now.

On the second day of the new year I landed somewhere I’d never been before — the Northwest. Seattle was sunny and warmer than New York, when I arrived in early January. Immediately my brain sought the familiar in the airport’s signs leading to the baggage claim, with yellow circles on black reminiscent of MTA subway stations. Immediately the two-tiered system of the airport confused me. Immediately sitting in the front seat of my high school violin teacher’s minivan with her two kids and driving on a winding highway with pine tree mountain peaks around us was surreal. The way this world worked did not match my previous experience or expectations. This was not New York, not Taiwan, not China, not Japan, not Ghana, not Italy or anything else I could pinpoint on my map of consciousness.

Suddenly the steep drop down from 4th or 5th Ave. — which one was it? — down to Pike Place Market met us, and as we cruised down my mind could not comprehend the existence of such a road, so unlike New York, so unlike the East Coast.


Then I saw and heard it all: The first Starbucks, the origin of that luxury Manhattan (student) staple; the fish throwers; the fish and chips; the ferris wheel and Seattle lore I’d never heard a hint of on that island miles away to the East. The market could have been one of New York’s seasonal holiday fairs or an attempt at artisanship in a borough or far off Long Island county, but Pike Place was the locals’ grocery store and gift shop, a market thriving and perennial. That was most impressive — perennial. Even in winter, after the Christmas festivities, the market was filled with people. The dried flowers were so inexpensive, and parking prices were to die for. Eating a lunch of much larger portions than any New York food stall would sell, I sat in a corner surrounded by rocks and fat pigeons. I felt the separation from that other city I lived in, where the pigeons are also fat, but where there are more buildings, taller ones, and smaller patches of blue sky. Then my mind tried to imagine how, in another latitude, in another climate and in another timezone my apartment in the East Village and my family and friends were living through New York’s coldest winter in years.


The sun of that market darkened as I waited with my friend for another friend in a McDonalds near the Macy’s in downtown, a dated version of the one in Herald Square. Inside McDonalds, no one said anything about paying to sit and the homeless were scattered about. In the moments when I could not contact my friend on my dying cellphone, the entire setup of Seattle itself seemed bizarre. The impoverishment, the cross between Manhattan’s homeless and the relaxed air of the suburbs was baffling. Retrieving us was my friend, an international student from China, who led us to the bus stop. We waited 10, if not 15, minutes for bus 13. When we boarded, the driver gave as a purple slip, torn at the edge, to show how long our bus pass lasted: more than three hours, until 6pm.


We watched the people get on, and off, the bus: Senior citizens, schoolchildren, parents and other residents. The bus very quickly left downtown’s old, 3-6 story buildings and entered communities of houses, with roads that seemed to wind up and down and left and right, far more groove than buses in New York could handle. Then we walked, in the nipping damp wind, a few blocks to the low apartment buildings of the university.

A calm filled me in that four-bedroom apartment, with the off-white carpets, bar kitchen, spacious living room, and everything so wide-open and cozy. New York was clocking dinnertime by then but we who had caught the 6am flight out had a whole museum to explore this afternoon in Seattle. Open, slightly despondent but free, the city, the friendships and conversations cleared my mind from the pressures of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.


Even sailboats get the bridge lifted for them.

Throughout those four days my mind could never grasp the concept of being so far behind Eastern Standard Time, and waking up to a newborn sun when my family was about to have lunch. The stock market opened when I was asleep and closed when I had hardly started my day. Evenings were hopeless — the calm of 9pm PST was 12am EST and too late to call home. The separation caused by distance, time and the newness of Northwestern culture thrust me into the unknown and relieved me. I was somewhere I’d never been and had never known much about. Here in the same country, everything should have been the same. But I felt so far removed.

Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, 2004.

I realize that at the time I was terribly anxious. Money. Parents. Choices. Projects. But out on that western peninsula I rediscovered new horizons, new possibilities, and the chance to reinvent yourself — I realized that was why pioneers went West and why so many (from the West) come to New York. Sometimes in the back of my mind I also want to leave, but I know that in terms of food quality and selection, as well as the density of society, no American city can touch New York. Media confirms this. But for once during this haggard senior year, I glimpsed a possibility of peace in urbanism and I didn’t want to let that go.

Chihuly Garden and Glass.

I know too much about New York, enough to feel its hurts and grow angry at the injustices. I don’t know any of the social riffs in Seattle’ social scene. I haven’t seen many of its ills or wandered alone on its streets on the way to work. Seattle has no bitter memories for me. Yes, I was on vacation — with my closest friends — situations during which even the dingiest shack can become paradise. But I remembered those pine tree-lined mountains by the highway, the little shops so like Brooklyn but seemingly less affected, the waterfront and mountaintop vistas, the highway that ran flat against the finger of water separating Seattle from Bellevue and the glorious dome of the world floating above, the art so otherworldly and so refreshing in the Chihuly Glass Garden and Museum, and the rain that dripped from the air. Even if Seattle has no Park Avenue or Rockefeller Center, it could be loved for being unconventional, while still possessing substance beneath the breathtaking views.

Mountain view from University of Washington.

The opportunity to learn something new is enticing. I never paid much attention to the Super Bowl, not even when the Giants won in 2012 and New York went wild. Seattle will represent for the second time during the Super Bowl this year, and now I have greater reason to care. The possibility of another outcome is endearing to a jaded New Yorker who knows the grand pulse of Manhattan and the other boroughs — the greatest skyline in the world.

New York City aerial view.

All photos by Evelyn Cheng.


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