I’ve lived in Brooklyn for close to 16 years, ever since I moved to the US from Baku, Azerbaijan in 1999.
The Brooklyn that I know is blocks of six-story red- and yellow-brick apartment buildings filled with people of all colors. Mexicans, Jews from the former USSR, Pakistanis, African Americans, and anyone else you can think of. Multitudes of languages, immigrant dreams, and colorful chalk on the sidewalk.
Up until I was 18 years old, my small part of Brooklyn was all I knew. My parents were fiercely protective of my brother and I, so we rarely ventured far out of our zip code. There were two reasons for this: the culture that we came from (a Jewish minority group known as the Mountain Jews) and my parents’ apprehensions about living in a new country.
I spent my childhood summers at home, except for one summer when we stayed in upstate New York for two weeks. But I loved those summers in Brooklyn. The days stretched ahead of me—filled with daydreams, books, grocery shopping with my dad, summer TV, and long walks with my family on humid nights.
Once or twice a year, we would take the train to the city. We would visit museums like the Met and see Central Park. The city was foreign and exciting. A place where I clung to my parents but also wanted to know more.
The city subway system was largely an unfamiliar place; I only saw glimpses of it for many years. Besides when we visited Brighton Beach or a relative, those trips to the city were some of the only times that I took the train growing up.
I knew buses much better: the B6, the B68, the B11, and the B49 were taken to school or to visit family. I was a master of dipping my MetroCard into the slot and keeping my balance steady as the bus went jostling down an avenue.
Fast forward to junior year of high school and my English teacher telling my class to get out of Brooklyn for college. Not because Brooklyn was bad, but because we should see other parts of the city and other parts of the country. That really stuck with me.
It was during that same semester that I first learned about Macaulay from a small paragraph on a CUNY pamphlet that I picked up in my school’s college and career office. It was an incredible opportunity, and remembering my teacher’s words and my own desires to know the city, I chose to apply to Macaulay Hunter.
I submitted my application in October 2010, nearly two months before the deadline, and did my interview in January 2011 at Hunter College. My acceptance letter arrived in mid-March. I was ecstatic! I had been working for months to get that acceptance, and it felt like everything was finally falling into place.
My Macaulay Hunter acceptance came with the guarantee of a free dorm at Brookdale for my first two years of college. After talking with my parents and thinking about what I wanted, I decided to not take the dorm.
I would make the hour-long commute five days a week twice a day, straddling two boroughs and two parts of myself.The summer before college, I got to know a bit of the subway system and the city with my friends as we hung out together for the last times before we would all go our separate ways. But it was not until I took the subway all on my own that I really got to know it.
On my first day of classes, there was a medical emergency somewhere at a train station ahead of where I was. Not knowing what else to do, I called my dad, who asked me if I wanted him to pick me up. But I didn’t want to be “rescued,” and I definitely didn’t want to miss class. This was my first day of a new chapter in my life, and I wanted to start it the right way, so I stayed on that train until it started moving again. I got to my first class 15 minutes late and out of breath, but I got there all on my own.
And so it continued. I spent long days at Hunter away from Brooklyn and all that was familiar.
It’s amazing how quickly the city and the Upper East Side, in particular, felt like home. During breaks between classes, I explored the city. I took walks down Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue with my mouth open at the splendor of the designer stores that I had only read about in magazines. I remember calling my mom just to tell her that I had seen a Chanel store in person.
One day, I took a walk to the East River and came across New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and its medical school, not knowing that just months later, I would be there, interacting with patients and working in a laboratory. On another of my long walks, I stumbled upon the NYPL branch on Fifth Avenue, and finally saw the lions that I had only heard about from my dad (not knowing that I would write a 40-page paper about the NYPL just a year later in Seminar 4).
Speaking of seminars, The Arts in New York City was a real gift during my first semester of college. I saw Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera, heard Amos Oz speak at the 92nd Street Y, and saw a performance at the New York City Center.
The subway and all of its quirks were now familiar to me—almost like I had been taking the train my whole life. I got annoyed and worried about being late for class when there was a train delay, but I didn’t call my dad. Somehow, I always found my way to where I had to be. I got used to homeless people asking for money, teenage boys dancing to hip hop, and young women singing love songs.
I used my train rides to read books, study notes, or sometimes just observe the people around me. I was always aware that I was usually one of the youngest people there. Everyone else seemed tired and clung to their coffee cups and cell phones. My own tiredness came at the end of particularly long days as I felt sleep and adulthood settle in.
Every night I would come home to Brooklyn, to my family. To the comfort of home-cooked food and the couch in front of the television.
Sometimes, when I would take buses in Brooklyn, I would feel out of place. Where was the whir of the train? The dirty subway-car floor? The people in sharp suits and gorgeous dresses? Instead, there were Russian Jewish grandmas, the yellow tape on the walls, and rain-speckled windows. But both experiences are a part of me, and in both, I feel at home.
It’s why, even as I fell deeper in love with the city, I never looked down on Brooklyn. The two boroughs spoke to different sides of me. Brooklyn was childhood, family, and comfort. Manhattan was adventure, bright lights, and newness.
Throughout college, I learned more and more about the city and more and more about myself. I continued to take those walks down city avenues, finding peace in the chaos of busy New York afternoons. I ate out with my friends and on my own: chicken teriyaki bento boxes, chicken Caesar heroes, eggplant with tamarind, $10 cheeseburgers, lamb gyros, vegetarian ramen, and Korean barbecue. I spent my summers volunteering and interning in the city, learning the art of professionalism. I tasted the sweetness and challenges of young love. My voice, which used to become shaky when I felt nervous, grew stronger. I worried less and did more. I even got over my lifelong fear of escalators!
And Brooklyn was always there to keep me grounded. Grocery shopping with my mom, hearing stories of my dad’s medical school adventures, visiting my young cousins, walking on Ocean Parkway, and doing homework on quiet Saturday afternoons. I wouldn’t give these things up for anything.
And how do my overprotective parents feel about all of this? Although they still want to shield their daughter from the difficulties of the world, they love that I chose to go to school in the city and they love watching me blossom into early adulthood. Now I am their guide in the city and on the subway as I show them all that I have discovered.
Just a couple of months away from graduation, I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent my college years in two boroughs. I feel just as comfortable in those blocks of red-brick buildings on Ocean Avenue as I do on the blocks of luxury apartment buildings on Park Avenue. I went into college ready to expose myself to as much as I could without losing the “Brooklyn” in me, and I think I’ve accomplished that.
Here’s to many more years of discovery here and elsewhere.