“Let’s hear it from New York”
“What do you see?”
That’s often one of the first things people ask when you talk about traveling. Everyone wants to know the sights you saw and the places you visited. You curate your Instagram with the most beautiful images, for the world to see. Traveling -- and studying abroad -- are incredibly visual experiences.
But there’s also a lot to be said about the power of listening. Culture is expressed not just in the landmarks and tourist attractions of a place, but also in the way people communicate with another.
Even walking around in the city, if you take out your headphones and take a listen to what’s going on around you, you can hear the city’s heartbeat. You can feel the melting pot and the concrete jungle that is New York in the many sounds of the streets: the businessman talking on the phone, the mom reading to her son on the Subway, the tourists posing for pictures.
You hear so many languages and so many people of different backgrounds, and perhaps that’s another reason why being in New York this semester truly does feel like a study ‘abroad.’ In fact, only about half of the city’s population speaks only English, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. About 24% also speak Spanish, nearly 13% speak Indo-European languages, and nearly 9% speak Asian and Pacific Island languages.
Being surrounded by a language you don’t understand is a powerful lesson - one that all abroad experiences should include. It is so humbling and so eye-opening (even downright shocking at first) when someone speaks and you cannot understand.
As native English speakers, we are blessed yet spoiled with the power we are given. We take our language for granted, and often expect the world to speak the same way as us. Even as someone who speaks other languages and has traveled to other countries, I am still surprised when I have my ‘aha!’ moments with language.
For example, when my Italian roommate texted us that she would be home for dinner soon, she was just on the “pullman.” Or when my French roommate asked me to read over an email draft and I was shocked to see that the keyboard was French. Or when a man asked me for which train to take and when I glanced at his final destination on his phone, it was all in Chinese. Or at my internship, where my “conversational" Spanish skills are really put the test when I listen to interviews in Spanish.
(Confession: I understand like one out of every ten words)
Even these moments, despite being so small and seemingly insignificant in the bigger picture, help me get a new perspective and step in someone else’s shoes, even for a minute. And they help me get out of my ‘native English-speaking bubble.’
I’d say that’s the beauty of traveling: it takes you new places, yet it also grounds you. You learn to understand a new place, a new person, and at the end of the day, you’re a little more empathetic -- as long as you take the time to listen.
Our “Postcards” series features stories from Syracuse University students exploring other parts of the world. Rashika Jaipuriar is a senior studying broadcast and digital journalism and citizenship and civic engagement at Syracuse University. This semester, she is studying in New York City — keep an eye out for a Postcard from the Big Apple every month!