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Down an Anonymous Alley MAG
Standing in that busy intersection, I felt like I was still in New York City. There were the same speeding taxis, crowded sidewalks, and streets lined with posh stores. My only concern was how to make it to the other side of the street alive.
There was a Starbucks over there, right next to the golden arches of McDonald’s. A row of ritzy European boutiques stood on the next street, with large ads picturing lithe models in vertiginous heels. The only thing reminding me that I was in China was the large statue of Chairman Mao at the end of a busy boulevard with one arm extended, as if in greeting, and the other tucked behind his back. He wore a slight smile. “Hello!” he seemed to say, “Welcome to China: Land of the Golden Arches!”
One evening, I ushered my younger cousin to the community center for his karate lesson. The center was built next to a car-clogged street, but a row of trees hid the vehicles from view. In a semi-circular row of one-story buildings, kids played ping-pong and women practiced yoga. In the courtyard, couples learned the waltz. While waiting for his lesson to end, I took a walk around the perimeter of the center. I wandered down an alleyway to a wide street. It was dark and I was alone, but the place seemed benign. After all, the waltzing couples were only a few steps away.
I could make out buildings with ornate rooftops that looked like they were built a hundred years ago. People were walking in both directions, sharing the street with rickety carts of vegetables. On either side of the street were tiny storefronts where a dozen men sat in worn t-shirts with bowls of noodles, watching a single television.
I turned another corner and the road narrowed. It was unpaved and with each step, I felt my sandals squeaking against mud. Sausage links hung from hooks and wicker baskets filled with scraggly vegetables stood in the shops. People jostled back and forth in the alley, and as they passed, I noticed their faces were leathery, their clothes threadbare.
When the road widened, I stood for a moment and looked around. There was a raggedy mutt near me and I could not tell for sure if he were a stray. There were designs carved into the nearby buildings but the facades were weather-worn. In an upstairs window, I could make out a curtain, a piece of fabric printed over with a cartoon design, and it occurred to me that people actually lived here.
Men stood around, chatting noisily and punctuating their conversations with guffaws. Vendors tried to sell their remaining stock of greens to mothers toting distracted children. These were the people I didn’t notice during the day; I passed them by as they laid down the bricks for the city’s new high-rise condominiums, but here they were, laughing loudly, playing cards on wobbly tables, drinking and gossiping. These people had lives. They had friends, loves, and stories to tell. For a while, I saw life from this view, and things looked different. The little, unpaved alley was home. I felt like a voyeur, like I was watching a scene I wasn’t supposed to see in a place where I didn’t belong.
I turned, retracing my steps along the unpaved road, back along the street lined with vendors. In a minute’s time, I was back in my life. The couples were still waltzing. Seemingly different worlds were separated by a two-minute walk. To each, the other seemed foreign and strange.
My cousin came running out after his class.
“Hey!” he chirped. “Want to go to Pizza Hut tomorrow?” Walking back to my grandmother’s apartment, we passed by the new Four Seasons Hotel; its fountains shot up like geysers and lights glistened. It seemed funny that behind the wide avenue where these hotels stood was a narrow alleyway where a group of friends gathered in a storefront to smoke cigarettes and watch a single television.
The next day, I passed by countless construction sites. There would be more condos and office towers going up. There would be more migrant laborers in hard hats putting together the steel structures piece by piece. In a few days, I would be back in New York, another place with steel towers, glitzy stores, and Pizza Huts. I knew I would never step foot in that narrow, unpaved alley again, but it would still be there. Behind the fountains and parking lots of the fancy hotels, there would be a nondescript corner where friends sit around on the rickety wooden stools, chatting and laughing after a long day.