The sun is beginning to peak through the clouds, but the moon is still visible as my mom waits on the Lefferts station platform for the Manhattan bound A train. The wind blows, and she adjusts her gloves and scarf as she observes the residential streets in South Ozone Park, Queens. Her brown leather bag is filled to brim with her lunch, work essentials, bills and a magazine to entertain herself during her long commute into the city. The residential neighborhood is fairly peaceful this early in the day, with the occasional sound of garbage trucks and cars. Rush hour commuters, like my mom, and taxi drivers tend to be the only people awake at 6:30 A.M.
Similar to other commuters waiting on the Lefferts platform, my mom, Jemima Tiwary-Singh, must take the train every day out of Queens to get to work. As a New York State Bank Examiner, she assesses the activities of banks and other financial institutions. Her job requires her to travel to various banks within New York City. The banks tend to be from countries outside the United States of America. For example, this week, “I am working in a bank that is from South Korea. This week I am in Korea town, so I had some Korean B-B-Q with my co-workers and purchased some lipstick from Korea. Exploring the city is enjoyable and I have the chance to see different communities and their cultures. Although, the commute is not always enjoyable.”
South Ozone Park has a population of over 35,000 people, and of that population about 41% of people travel more than 60 minutes to commute to work. While that may not seem a significant amount of time, commuting an hour when going and coming from work can be stressful. My mom explained that the commute can be challenging for her “if I have to stand most of the way or if I have other things weighing on my mind, things that I know I need to do when I return home. It [the commute] is not really relaxing, especially when there are delays. Those happen almost every day.”
People continue to fill the platform. It seems like there will be another train delay. My mom chuckles and says to me “What did I tell you?” She looks over at the small businesses on Liberty Avenue. This section is sometimes called Little Guyana and it began to develop in the 1970’s. Currently, the Guyanese population is the fifth largest immigrant population in New York, however, very few people actually know where the country is located. “When I tell people where I am from, they usually do not know what I am talking about. Sometimes they confuse it with Ghana. I remember when I first worked at Chase bank. Most of the customers would be Guyanese or West Indian. They would have an accent. When the other tellers did not understand the customers, they would send them to me and I could understand them. One day, one of the tellers asked me: ‘Jem, what language do you speak? What language is that?’ Meanwhile, I don’t know what she’s talking about, so I say ‘English.’ She laughed and said, ‘It does not sound like English. I can never understand what they are saying.’”
Guyana is a small country in the North East of South America. My mom described it as “a less developed country than the United States.” While, the national language of most countries in South America is Spanish, Guyana is one of the few countries with English as the official language. It has a population of almost one million people, compared to New York, which has over 19 million people. New York’s population is diverse and everyone has their own personal story for why they moved to New York. My mom states that one main reason she immigrated to America was because she “wanted more for my young family, especially broader horizons and more scope for my child. You, Rhia, would be the next generation in the family. It was about accessing more opportunities in a more developed country like the United States.”
My mom describes her life in Guyana as being a member of the upper middle class. She worked in Demerara Bank, at the “junior management level in the financial sector. It was a less stressful economic environment, where you spent a lot less time commuting, for example. You had a lot more time for rest and relaxation.” In her eyes, Guyana had a more relaxed environment than New York City.
Although there is less time to unwind in New York, that hustle is also what motivated my mom to move to here. New York offered a greater opportunity for growth. There are more schools, social mobility, and recreational activities available.
Safety and low crime rates was another factor that New York offered, but Guyana did not. According to my mom, “you could not safely enjoy the standard of living you worked to achieve without being the target of robbers.” Imagine being able to afford jewelry and a car, but also being afraid to use either for fear of attracting the attention of criminals. Life there felt limited displaying one’s success was potentially risky to one’s well-being. It raises the question: What is the point of working hard?
The poverty level, along with governmental corruption, may contribute to Guyana’s high crime rates. Many of the crimes in the country are violent and property related. Plus, the police tend to be corrupt and unable to help prevent or convict criminals.
Overall, New York has better living conditions than Guyana. It is a much safer and advanced place than Guyana. Even with these benefits, it is difficult to uproot and change one’s life. When my mom first started living in the United States of America, she faced many challenges. One was learning how to deal with the winter weather. She had to learn to dress for the winter weather, drive through the snow, and de-frost a windscreen. While adjusting to the cold weather was difficult in the beginning, my mom says, “I still hate wearing all the layers. But, I am more appreciative when I see plants bloom in the Spring. That was something I took for granted, but now I am always so delighted when I see the buds on the trees.”
Another challenge, that she faced, besides dealing with the cold weather, was re-establishing herself in a foreign country with different customs. She says that a major challenge was “losing your identity and having to start all over again; including looking for a new job, starting over at the bottom of the career ladder, finding a new home, settling in to new routines. Not to mention we [my dad and mom] came when you were two, so while trying to settle ourselves we also had to find you a babysitter and get you adjusted as well.” It was difficult to have start at the bottom and there must have been times of doubt when she wondered was it even worth it.
However, even with these challenges, my Mom remembers this period of change positively and views it as a time for growth and development that was needed to satisfy her personal goals. With adoration in her voice, my mom recalls her enjoyment when she first visited Manhattan. She says that “Manhattan fit the bustling and lively cosmopolitan that was my idea of New York at the time.” On the other hand, she was not impressed with the smaller buildings and amenities in the outer boroughs. She continues, “When we were back home [Guyana], my brothers and I would see photos of the sky scrapers in the city. It was astounding to even imagine a place like New York City. When I first visited Long Island, and I saw all the trees and wilderness bordering the LIE, part of me wondered if we were still in New York!” The design of this culturally diverse place my mom calls home is unique. Her eyes gleamed with the vast activities the city that never sleeps offers to everyone. New York City was a symbol of opportunity to my mom, and sixteen years later, the allure and charm has remained.
She takes a seat on the crowded A train as she commutes to work. While, life in New York is stressful, she would not have it any other way. It was the place she knew she needed to be to fulfill her personal ambition. There were many obstacles when adjusting to this foreign place. However, as I observe my mom juggle her life as wife, mother and worker, I know that she belongs among the other New York “go-getters.” They all share the same drive, motivation and work ethic. Like, many other immigrants in the city, New York is a place filled with a myriad of opportunity and my mom too has developed a new identity in this dynamic, captivating and lively city.
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