I have been putting off writing this for days! Partly because I had no wifi until last Wednesday, but partly also because I don’t even know where to start. It’s been a crazy 10 days.
I guess first of all, it was really sad to leave. Like I’ve said before, I’ve had so much fun at home especially in the recent months, despite the pandemic. Everyday kind of just felt like a family holiday because we’d cook, play badminton or Bananagrams or jigsaw puzzles and I didn’t have to think about making plans or rushing anywhere. So yeah, obviously I miss my family. I barely got to see my extended family this year, so that’s really sad too. I drove my beloved Volvo to the airport and obviously my dad came with me. I wish my mum and sister could have come too. Had to change my mask like three times at the airport because I cried so much every time someone texted or called me to say bye and my masks just kept getting soaked haha.
The flight itself was fine! I was a little nervous about it since I really haven’t done many flights, let alone long distance ones in the past year or so. But it was okay, I mean obviously I got kind of restless but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. It was totally full though. I think the Doha – New York leg of the flights was at maybe 99% capacity but I double-masked and wore a damn face shield the entire way (except during meals of course, but even then, I deliberately ate after everyone else finished their meals).
Also, as I was about to land, I was looking at the map on my screen. And for whatever reason, as soon as I saw Philadelphia appear on the map, I started to tear up a bit?? Washington DC too, but mostly Philly, even though I prefer DC. I think just because I think of Philly as like my ~origin story~ lol and the place where I really had to grow up and be on my own. So clearly it’s just a super important place to me.
I didn’t get much sleep on the plane — I think maybe 6 hours in total at most, and definitely not all at once. But after I landed at JFK, I had a really busy day ahead of me immediately so I had no time to rest at all. First, I had to unload all of my bags at my apartment which is about an hour away from the airport. Let me just tell you that a wave of dread washed over me as I realised the elevators were not working. I live on the sixth floor ok, it’s not even funny. And the staircases are REALLY steep that even when I walk down the steps without bags I feel scared that I might fall. Also, here might be a good place to point out that if Qatar Airways is really generous with luggage allowance for students. I had 75 kg of bags and a ukulele on me. On top of all of that, we were pretty much in a heat wave. And there’s no air conditioning or anything in the common spaces. It was an absolute nightmare!!!!! Luckily, one of my roommates helped me carry two of my bags up. But then it was about to be time for us to go to the leasing office to get our leases physically signed and everything, so we just left one bag under the staircase on the ground floor for a while (and just prayed nothing would happen…) while we got that done.
On the way to the leasing office, which is just a few blocks away, I went to pick up some sushi which my kind friend Hanna — who isn’t even in New York!! — ordered for me because she knew I would have no food in the apartment (love you Hanna, if you’re reading this). After I finished signing the lease and all of that though, my roommate had to run back to work. I on the other hand, had to rush to go pick up a window AC unit I had arranged to buy from someone secondhand on Facebook (so glad I remembered to make this purchase before I arrived, tbh). So I walk over (in the blazing heat) to that person’s apartment and it’s on the 6th floor, and there’s no elevator. That’s fine… except the window AC unit was SO HEAVY. I wish the person I bought it from had mentioned in the listing that her building was a walk-up. There was no way I could carry it down by myself. The seller offered to help me carry it down but it was just really hard to coordinate and it felt really dangerous for one person to be walking down the stairs backwards carrying it. So instead, I said never mind, I’ll just “slide” it down the stairs while I supported it from the bottom of each step with my leg/hands. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe lol but I think you might know what I mean. I guess that was the worst part. But I still had to carry it over to the main street and there was no one around who could help me. I think it only weights about 15-20 kg, but it’s more so that the box is really bulky and hard to hold. Not to mention I STILL HAD THAT SUSHI ON ME!!! Finally I get it close enough to the main street and someone helped me carry it all the way to the curb where I would try to get a cab back to my apartment. Tough luck, no cabs around. So I look at my phone, see I have 6% of battery left and decide I would try to call a Lyft/Uber. But I hadn’t been in the US in years, so I needed to download those apps again, and input my account and card details all over again. Good thing I know all my numbers by heart. In the end I managed to call a Lyft to pick me up with like 2% left to spare. Fun fact: my charger stopped working on the plane somehow (!!), so I also had to go to Rite Aid to get a new one, but I couldn’t use my debit card because it’s been ages since I had used it, so I had to use my dad’s credit card, heh. In fact, I couldn’t even use Venmo to pay for the AC so Hanna had to Venmo that person for me, since my Venmo account was still tied to my old phone number and I can’t get into it.
Ok so then after that, as you might remember, the elevator was still not functioning. So I got my AC back to the building but I couldn’t carry it up to my apartment and my roommate wouldn’t be back for a while. And my phone was dead at this point, so I leave it downstairs and go back into my apartment to troubleshoot. I got out the new charging cable I bought, but couldn’t find the kepala to plug it into an outlet (it was somewhere in my mess of luggage), so I had to charge my phone on my laptop. And because it was SO HOT (there’s no fan no nothing in the apartment), I opened the fridge, placed my laptop there and finally ate some of the sushi Hanna bought me at like 2.45 pm (I hadn’t had anything to eat since like maybe 6 am or so, New York time, and that was just a bit of plane food).
Eventually my phone comes back to life and I decide to call my dear, dear friend Ken to help me. He also goes to Columbia but that’s like at least 20 minutes away. I told him it’s fine if he couldn’t help, since I had a backup plan. I was staying downtown with some friends for the first few nights while I sorted out my room (my apartment came totally unfurnished). So if I ended up being able to carry everything up, I would just lug all of my stuff there — not ideal, since I don’t want to bring a dirty AC and a large suitcase to someone’s apartment but you know, tolerable. But Ken agreed to come anyway in the middle of a weekday!! He helped me lift both the last suitcase and the AC up. And he would tell me not to tell him what level we were at so that he could be pleasantly surprised when we reached my floor hahaha. Then I thanked him and told him I’ll see him soon, since I’m sure he had to get back to work but he insisted we have something to eat. So we had some chips and guac and Jarritos (!) at a Mexican restaurant nearby. Finally, after that, I went over to my friends’ place. I showered, had some dinner, and passed out by 8.30 pm. That’s early but honestly not bad — considering I travelled back 12 time zones and barely slept on the plane, I should have been a lot more jet-lagged than that.
The second day was a lot less dramatic, if I’m recalling correctly. I went to the bank to reset my pin, got a new phone number, ordered some furniture for my room. Bought some basic house stuff that I needed immediately like plates and bowls and hangers and stuff — luckily this time, I managed to get a cab, though it was still a struggle and a half to carry everything I bought onto the curb by myself and I had to do it bit by bit.
Oh but one cool thing did happen that day. It was really hot so I wanted to get an iced drink. I walked into the first coffee shop I saw and place my order. As I’m getting my card out to pay, the cashier goes like “oh are you from Malaysia?” and I said yes, and asked how he knew. He said he saw my IC in my purse. So we started chatting, talked about where in Malaysia we’re from. Long story short, we figured out that his wife kind of my aunt’s former student!! My aunt had even put me in contact with her before I came to New York, just in case I needed anything. Such a wild serendipitous moment.
Then when I got back, I mostly kemas kemas here and there, unpacked my suitcases and put my clothes in my closet. I couldn’t install the AC by myself though, and no one else was home (my roommates hadn’t moved in yet either at that point) but even just turning it on while leaving it on the floor helped so much. I would not have been able to function otherwise. I didn’t have a lamp, though. That meant I had to stop working by the time it got dark haha and I went back to my friends’ apartment downtown before dark. We had dinner together and just had a really nice time just hanging out. They also have a kid, who is just the absolute cutest and sweetest boy ever. I loved spending time with him.
So yeah, for the next few days, I just spent the first few days just commuting between my friends’ place downtown and mine uptown and buying stuff, cleaning up, unpacking and assembling furniture. Ken came again on Sunday to help me carry and assemble my bed frame. The delivery people carried it up all the way to my door step. I managed to bring in and assemble everything but the bed frame — it was simply too heavy. This time he even brought me diet coke! I would say that by Sunday night (the end of day 4) I was mostly settled. I could already eat, sleep and shower in my apartment. So that was the first night I slept at the new place. I am super super grateful for my friends’ hospitality though because that meant I could properly rest and all that while I got my room set up.
Orientation started on my fifth day in New York. Everyone around me was like wow you’re really getting all your stuff together so quickly! But it’s literally because I had only four days before orientation began and couldn’t afford to take my time.
It was so emotional, honestly! Exciting and scary and also just beautiful?? Because it’s been so long since I’ve been in school. It’s also the first thing I feel like I’m doing that is me taking myself seriously as a writer. And also I’ve just been so busy since July that I simply hadn’t had the time to process the fact that I was about to start school again. Plus, the campus is also just so pretty!!
Before the class started, people were mostly making small talk outside. I felt a bit self-conscious for a hot second because it’s hard not to be when everyone’s looking their best and trying to make a good impression. But I also kind of snapped out of it immediately because I remembered I’m nearly 30 and I have no patience with myself to be anything less than self-assured in social settings. I am super fine with sitting by myself and I don’t mind making small talk but I also don’t feel the pressure to be liked or try to make a lot of friends or to prove to myself or anyone that I deserve to be here. I don’t even feel a lot of impostor syndrome because I just feel like whatever, it matters less how qualified I am, and more how willing I am to learn. I’m not saying that other people are doing/feeling/thinking all of those things, but just that those are the usual sorts of dynamics in any new school year or workplace. It helps I guess that I already am friends with my roommates (who I met online, by the way), and that I have a good number of friends in New York. But also I don’t know… I just, feel older in that way. It’s hard to describe.
The speakers at orientation pretty much made it clear that it’s going to be a gruelling year, and that we’ll be made to work very very hard. We also discussed topics like ‘What Is Journalism’ and how individual journalists can work to improve the field which has had a hand for many years in enforcing stereotypes etc, like how do we make reporting more fair and all of that. I think for me something I always think about is how do we shed light on issues around the world but at the same time not do it in such a way that certain groups of people only ever get portrayed as victims. So yeah, those were really interesting conversations and I’m really looking forward to having more of those discussions in the next year.
We also heard from people like the career services centre and the Dean of Student Life about career stuff from day one. It’s kind of intense and pressuring, but it also makes sense since it’s such a short program and people really do enter with the aim of trying to land something good after. And that’s what I love about being at a school like Penn/Columbia — it’s just so insanely well resourced and connected that it has all the means of supporting students through processes like finding work.
I also had to get tested for COVID-19 on my first day of orientation. Testing at Columbia is free, we just have to make an appointment online. Everyone has to get tested when they first arrive, but after that we can do it voluntarily as we like or when we’re identified as a close contact. One thing that’s cool I think is that we are subjected to random testing. Apparently every week 10-20% of the Columbia community is selected for random testing to detect potential clusters. The COVID-19 restrictions on campus are quite comprehensive, I think. So far the school has managed to maintain a very, very low infectivity rate and hopefully with all these precautions in place it’ll stay that way.
On the last day of orientation, we only had one session from about 1 – 2.30 pm so I had time that evening to go see my beloved friend Cristina. We’ve been friends since first semester of Penn because we took Arabic 001 together (Cristina went on to become fluent and translate poetry, and I… can introduce myself and say I hate the winter). We went to Milk Bar, I had my favourite cereal milk soft serve that I haven’t had in three years. We walked around and then went to TARGET!! I love Target lol. She helped me get some small things I need for the apartment. It was so nice to catch up with a friend I haven’t seen in so long. We text and talk on the phone sometimes but it’s just different! She was actually supposed to come to Malaysia in April 2020 but we all know what happened then. Who would have thought that I would end up coming back to New York before she got to visit me.
And earlier that morning, I went on my first run in New York along the Hudson River! That felt like a big milestone, haha. And speaking of milestones, it was also the very first time I visited the laundromat. I don’t have laundry inside my building, but thankfully there is a laundromat on the ground floor of my building.
On Thursday, I had my first day of class. We all start with Intro to Reporting. My class (about 16 of us) is going to cover Harlem, and we’re going to be publishing on a website later this semester. I have no idea what kind of stories I’m going to be doing yet, honestly. I guess we’ll find out. I’m excited about it though because I learned from DC that reporting about an area is an excellent way to feel at home and connected to a community beyond just your immediate circle of friends.
The morning of that first class day was just us going over how the course will go. In the afternoon, we went on a guided walking tour of Harlem. We saw lots of historical and cultural sites, including the first mosque that Malcolm X set up. After the tour though, we were given an assignment that was due that day itself. We had to walk around Harlem and interview people about their COVID-19 experiences. The idea was to get us into the groove of going up to people on the street to ask for information and to get comfortable with introducing ourselves, speaking to people, and taking notes. It was quite an experience. Several people turned me away, or would talk to me but were unwilling to share their names. Some told really interesting stories, and it was really cool. If you had told me 10 years ago, that someday I’d be doing this, I might not have believed you. 10 years ago I was still learning to tell the waiter my own order. I was scared to order pizza on the phone. I mean, yes, it’s been 10 years+ but it’s cool to see clearly what I already guessed — that I’m a much more capable and resilient person today than I was before and that’s such a nice feeling.
I got feedback from my professor about the assignment the next day and immediately texted my friend Shahirah “WHY DID I DECIDE TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL” hahahaha because I did not miss the stomach-turning feeling of going over a professor’s comments. I don’t know why but it just feels so different from getting comments from a boss because that tends to be more collaborative, maybe?
For now, I only have this one class and I think this coming week I’ll start another called Investigative Techniques that’s all about using public records to find data and how else to gather information besides interviews. Later on in this half of the semester, I’ll have Journalism Law and Ethics. And in the second half of the semester, I’m taking one writing class and an “image and sound module” which basically means everyone takes a class in either data, audio or video. I chose data because video isn’t really my thing and I’ve already done a lot of audio. So I’m going to try a bit of data since it seems to be like the way journalism is headed these days.
These are kind of our “foundation classes.” Next semester we’ll get to choose classes that are a bit more specific to what we like — I’m hoping to take some sort of business/economics reporting class and maybe do more audio, we’ll see! I’m thinking I’ll explore more print this semester, and if I feel I still wanna do more audio next semester I’m going to look into it then.
The last of my roommates moved in on Friday, day 9. It was so exciting to have the apartment feel full and lively! I like both of my roommates a whole lot and am really pleased with how things turned out. We made trips to Target, Home Depot and Homegoods together. It was so nice to be able to do these trips with other people because before they moved in, I was doing them by myself and I really don’t mind that! But it is nice to have someone to get opinions from, and also to help you carry things.
My favourite purchase in a long time are these makeshift blinds that are foldable and all you have to do is cut them to the length you need and stick them to the top of your window frame. I don’t even think I’ll need curtains now that I have these.
I also would have liked to do more fun things this weekend, since it’s my first proper weekend in New York. I had this grand idea that I’d rent a bike and cycle all of Central Park but a) I didn’t know who to do it with and b) Hurricane Henri came down on us. It’s been raining pretty much non-stop since Saturday night and it has just been so gross and humid outside.
And that’s it for my first (super eventful) 10 days! I’m not even including everything, mind you. I just can’t be bothered to go that much into detail and plus I just frankly don’t even remember all of it. It was really tough at times, and honestly New York just feels too big sometimes. In DC, it never takes that long to get anywhere. The metro stations are all air conditioned and equipped with escalators — plus they’re just so much cleaner. I mean, I literally saw a flattened rat on the 1 line earlier today. But I just feel super super blessed and grateful to be here, and hopefully now that I’m more settled in and soon when the weather becomes a lot more pleasant, I’m hoping things will get a lot more enjoyable here.