architectural patriotism

Today is my last day in NYC. Tomorrow, I head to North Carolina to visit parents and then back to Shenzhen. My immanent departure has me wondering about if I’m going home, or not. I’m wondering because I say “I’m going home” about North Carolina and Shenzhen and not New York, which I go to but I feel more “at home” in New York than in either NC or SZ.

What’s up with that?

In Shenzhen when people express pride in the city’s architecture, I agree that some of the buildings are great. Indeed, I walk the streets photographing those buildings in various stages of construction. And, as mentioned earlier, this attention to Shenzhen details has taught me to care, both for the city in particular, but places in general.

However, being in New York this month has reminded me about the deep structure of architectural patriotism. New York is the one American city that moves me to unthinking patriotism. I see a building and think, “great city”. See another, “oh yeah, best city in the world”. Turn the corner and marvel at sunlight flickering across baroque facades, “is it any wonder we’re the world’s capital?” I ask myself.

My response to New York is visceral. Carnal. Second nature, so to speak. When outside Yew York, I don’t think about it, don’t fantasize about particular streets, don’t plan summer weekends in central park. But when here, each building hails me, each street tempts me, and each neighborhood anticipates my pleasure.

Before I came, I met with a former student, who left Shenzhen to study in New York, where he has learned to miss the street vendors of Yuanling (“who really do have the best street food,” unquote), the heady rush of Shenzhen nightlife, and the infinite possibility that all the construction continues to promise. He loves New York, too. Just like I love Shenzhen. And yet. Pretzels and falafel don’t bring him home, even as 米粉 still does not comfort me when I am most distressed.

More to the point, I’m wondering about the social uses and abuses of my sentiments. These unthinking responses to New York both affirm my identity and limit me. In New York, I have a stronger sense of who I am than I do in either Shenzhen or North Carolina. New York gives me a confidence that I do not feel in either of my physical “homes”; New York also gives me a hopeful certainty that no matter what happens today, tomorrow yeah, I’ll walk down the right street and all will connect.

Nevertheless, this unthinking rightness about my place in the city also confirms my prejudices and ignorance. In New York, I don’t need to see the dignity of Yuanling vendors, the odd differences in Fengshui architecture, and the unexpected (yes, to me) twists of Mandarin (let alone Cantonese-inflected Mandarin) conversations because all that messy otherness exists comfortably beyond my sentimental peregrinations. In Shenzhen, however, I see all this and thus rarely mistake my feeling of ease with a true perception of the world. Indeed, even when I’m feeling wonderfully situated, I’m watchful. Careful. Precise. All this attention because I sense and sometimes approach another river, that unthinkingly flows through my friends just as deeply as New York flows through me.

Yet what my life in Shenzhen has taught me unconditionally is that we are all also sojourners, some of us more obviously than others.  Even if still living in the town of our birth, most of us intuit that this place isn’t “home” because it isn’t what it was. Again, the distance between childhood and contemporary homes is more obvious in Shenzhen than in New York, but even North Carolina is erecting new buildings and neighborhoods that have radically restructured the landscape and in turn, transformed the meaning of “hometown”.

In Buddhist Mandarin “return home (回家)” means to return to one’s true nature. Accordingly, we are all “homesick,” yearning to return to our place of true belonging. And now I’m wondering if home can’t be other than where I am, why does it feel like life is elsewhere?

One thought on “architectural patriotism

  1. nice blog! 😀
    I’m from shenzhen too but never found it attractive, I guess it’s because it’s still not a full-blown city and lack of its own personality – or so I thought!
    but your love for the city induces me to judge the city more carefully.

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