Posted: November 30, 2021
“After my months in San Francisco, I don’t want to go home yet,” I texted my friend Athena. “Where should I go next?”
“Well, you could come visit me,” she said.
I jumped at the offer. This would be my first time seeing an online friend in real life. I had known her through the Club Penguin gaming community since we were 14 years old, and now we were in our early 20s.
Unlike me, Athena had met many online friends who came from many parts of North America. She lives in Jersey City, which is across the Hudson River from New York City. It’s a prime location for meetups; many people visit New York City for vacation, including her friends. Athena and her friends always agree to meet up in NYC — and only NYC.
Except me. “I will visit New York, but I want to focus my trip on Jersey City,” I told her. “Take me to all your favorite spots. I want to get to know your hometown. Actually, I want to know as much as about New Jersey culture as possible.”
Athena was surprised. None of her friends had ever wanted to visit her home state before! She began playing tour guide on WhatsApp. “I will send you a list of places around JC you must visit.”
As part of my Jersey City welcome package, I also received an inundation of New Jersey memes from Instagram. So this is postmodern travel research. It’s come down to memes now? One of the memes implied that New Jersey is a drive-through state. My friend said, “It’s because lots of travelers will drive through New Jersey so they can visit NYC and Washington DC, but they have no interest in our state.”
I said, “I promise I will spend quality time in your city. I will make it up to you New Jerseyans!”
Jersey City isn’t well-known because New York City overshadows it. People from all over the world come for its iconic subways, glimmering skyscrapers, and legendary sites. If they knew Jersey City was on the other side of the river, most would spare only a passing glance.
The only travelers I found in Jersey City were there for the cheaper accommodation for their NYC trip.
Little-known places have always thrilled me. Instead of a popular destination like NYC conveniently serving me must-see attractions on a golden platter, here in JC, I would visit my friend’s recommended points-of-interests while letting time unfold and see what happens.
My first impression of Jersey City was that this town of 260,000 people wasn’t trying to pretend. Although it has some noteworthy attractions, none of them were touristy. While travelers were competing for space across the river in the Big Apple, I was surrounded by Jersey’s locals.
Although I felt like I blended in so well with its communities, I will admit that at first, I was in a culture shock, even though I was still in my home country. I was trying to get used to living with its multicultural populations. (After all, Jersey City is the most ethnically diverse city in the United States, according to WalletHub’s 2021 ratings). As a Vietnamese American, I have lived in small towns with white folks most of my life. It was unusual for me to run into Black, Latino, Asian, and White people while strolling the streets. But eventually, the exposure won over and this Vietnamese American more easily felt like I fit into the community.
I slid into the groove by traveling the world as much as I could. And that was easy to do within this densely packed city.
My favorite neighborhood was West Side Avenue, where many unpretentious, multiethnic restaurants and stores ran down the street. I was terrified as I followed a nonchalant Athena, an expert at dodging drivers. Images of cars splattering metal against my body ran through my head, but the only running Athena did was with her legs without a worry.
One afternoon, my friend and I did an exchange of our cultures. My turn was up first as I took Athena to a small Vietnamese restaurant where we ate steaming phở. As she tried her best to pick up the slippery noodles between her chopsticks, she said she liked the soup. But when I let her try a sip of my durian smoothie, her face scrunched into disgust. Because durian is a putrid fruit for most people, I don’t blame her. I beamed with pride as I carried conversations in Vietnamese with the waitress and cashier — who were both the same person. Even though my friend didn’t know a word, at least I could let her hear the lovely, fluctuating tones of my language.
When it was Athena’s turn, we went to a Filipino grocer and I became the student. Athena pointed to a bag and said, “Those are chicharrones, pieces of crispy and fatty pork skin. They’re a popular snack.” As soon as I bit into one, a wave of salt pounded me as if somebody pushed me face-first into the ocean. “Eh, they’re not my favorite. Too salty for my taste. Would you like some?” She said, “I actually don’t eat them.” Great, now I got stuck with a huge bag of pork skin. After I paid, the cashier said something in Tagalog and laughed. I didn’t understand a word so I just cracked an awkward smile. Athena said something back to him in the language, then told me, “He was just teasing you. We Filipinos love to do that.”
We escaped from the harsh summer heat and humidity by coming back to her house. As Athena and I played Mario Kart 8 with our online friend Dialga who was tuning in from Germany, I was trying to ignore the salty aftertaste of the chicharrones. But it was worth it. Athena and I, both second-generation Asian Americans doing our best to absorb the cultures of our motherland, performed meaningful exchanges all within one Jersey City block.
I wanted more! The next day, Athena acted as a virtual tour guide on WhatsApp since she had to work. She recommended Journal Square, the city center which includes two ethnic enclaves, India Square (which has the most dense concentration of Indians in the Western Hemisphere) and the Filipino Five Corners.
Athena wanted me to get full that day from Filipino food, so she spilled out the names of her favorite eateries. At Max’s Restaurant, a nationwide Filipino restaurant brand, I tried my first Filipino hot dish: miki bihon, which were pancit noodles made from rice and egg. The subtly salty thin noodles slithered into my mouth.
I wanted to top it off with dessert, so next door was the bakery, Red Ribbon. Because Athena claimed that Filipino mangos were the best in the world, I helped myself to the soft chiffon and sweet glaze of the Mango Supreme cake. Meanwhile, the boisterous chatter of a group of females filled my ears. Because I couldn’t understand a thing, the alternative was to message my own female Filipino friend about what I experienced. Athena said, “We love to gossip. I wish I were with you to translate what they were saying.”
My full belly sloshed with pancit and cake, and yet I entered the Pandesal Breadhouse, where Filipino bread rolls called pandesal were baked fresh. When I ordered them, the baker handed me a huge six-pack! There was no way I could finish this. As I tore off a piece of the cushiony, warm bread for me to try, I decided to spare Athena’s family an errand by giving the rest to them.
I sampled so many Filipino foods and listened to so much Tagalog, I felt like I was in the Philippines, especially with Athena as my personal tour leader. No wonder it seemed that the Filipinos of Jersey City felt so at home here.
I imagined traveling across the Asian continent as I ventured into the next neighborhood, India Square. The main thoroughfare descended down a steep hill, its restaurants and grocery stores coming along for the ride. A mural with a graceful white Bengal tiger at the hilltop seemed to greet me as I entered.
Strong fragrances of spices lured me into a grocery store, where I perused the aisles and caught free whiffs.
The rain began pouring as I sought shelter inside Patel Video, where dusty movies lined the shelves. I was tempted to buy even more food, such as Indian ice cream, despite my disagreeing stomach. The cashier stood over the freezer, happy to point out his favorite desserts. I picked up an ice cream with crushed rose petals and pistachios that sat inside two elegant clay jars. Its cold and sweet flavors cooled me down from the summer heat, along with the rain.
As the sun begin to penetrate through the darkened clouds, I rode the bus back to my Airbnb’s Afro-Latino neighborhood and stopped by convenience stores called bodegas to buy breakfast for the next week. As I interpreted some of the shopkeepers’ Spanish, I felt like once again, I traveled the world from India to the Caribbean. I must have been really tired at the end of the day though, so the shopkeepers tried to cheer me up by asking how my day went. I could tell that they conversed with me out of genuine care, their big grins washing away some of my fatigue.
I could tell that the denizens of Jersey City loved their diverse communities — not only did they promote the cultural events on social media, but the city councilmembers attended many of them in person. Within less than a week, I attended an Italian festival, a Puerto Rican street party, a family-friendly drag show, an old-school rhythm and blues performance, and the flag raising ceremonies of India, Pakistan, and South Korea. I constantly found myself weaved in the multicultural fabric of Jersey City.
Kayvon Zand, the drag show’s emcee, their hair curling tall like an ocean wave, told me what made Jersey City so special. “The city made the event planning so easy. I worked directly with councilmember Mira Prinz-Arey to organize the drag show. Even Hudson County let us borrow their stage truck for the show.”
“I also thought it was really heartwarming to have a drag show for all-ages in a public park,” I said.
“Right? It’s not your typical drag show in a 21+ bar or anything like that. Jersey City has so much heart for its community.”
At that moment, I felt so fortunate to have been so accepted by the community at these inclusive citywide events. Jersey City’s people treated me as if I were one of them.
The outdoorsy me wanted to visit the city’s beloved outdoor space, Liberty State Park. I might have been the only out-of-towner there, sharing a lazy afternoon with the families sprawling over the grass and strolling on the sidewalks. The parks continued reminding me how local Jersey City felt. It relaxed me that I could merge in well with the locals. To them, I was just another Jerseyan soaking in a leisurely afternoon. Even though Liberty State Park was the closest mainland to the world-famous Statue of Liberty, the monument was just a part of the backdrop for most parkgoers, who simply wanted time off with their families.
As the Statue of Liberty’s back faced me, I thought about my infatuation with getting Jersey City more represented in the metro area it shares with NYC.
I would imagine most travelers landing on the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island thinking that these places were solely New York attractions. But that’s not true. They could very well be in New Jersey too, as a park ranger on Ellis Island explained to me. The two monuments are geographically in Jersey waters and are much closer to the Jersey mainland than New York. The Ellis Island dispute got so tense that the two stated took it to the Supreme Court in the 1998 New Jersey v. New York case. It was ruled that 83% of Ellis Island belonged to Jersey (the remaining percentage, the main building which now houses the museum, belongs to New York).
Speaking with locals, I could tell that Jersey City has been quivering in jealousy of how New York City captures all the fame, especially the Statue of Liberty reputation. And yet, most visitors pour their love into New York — even though, ironically, Liberty Island, which is home to the Lady Liberty, is surrounded by Jersey waters and stands much closer to Jersey State. The Statue is just as much of a Jersey monument as a New York one. After all, Jersey City is the most culturally diverse city in the United States, as I’ve observed wandering through its communities. JC is proud to embody Lady Liberty’s principles. She is seen in the local community college’s logo, on a welcome sign in front of city hall has her prominently on a welcome sign, and even represented in business names such as my laundromat, named Liberty Laundromat.
I sometimes had to remind myself that I wasn’t ever in the Caribbean, India, or the Philippines. I was surrounded by my fellow Americans in the unpretentious Jersey City, New Jersey. Each one of us represented the true America, one that was inclusive in every way possible. This random second-generation Vietnamese American raised in the American Heartland and the West Coast belonged in JC’s communities.
I hope I made it up to you, the people of JC. I will keep representing you, long after I finish this love letter to your city.
Especially when someone mentions visiting New York City. They ought to see for themselves what Jersey City is all about!
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