The I Don't Care People

"I started to write you a letter, to try and explain to you my feelings on your column. After thinking about it for a while, I've come up my "New York" response. I don't care."
(From a New Yorker commenting in email on my feature page, Letters to New York)

"What do you mean, you don't find us friendly?" an acquaintance literally screamed as we were talking in the street. I tried to explain but it was hard, and a futile task in any case. As the reader (quoted above) said, New Yorkers just don't care.

In a city where there are over three million single people, where even guest lists for parties are something that you buy, and where a woman's best friend is often her dog, I should not be surprised that it is hard to get to know anyone. I am surprised however at the response I get when I raise the question of friendship and hospitality. Often I get no response at all. In typical New York style, my comments are ignored, and the topic of conversation quickly and blatantly changed so that the person I was commenting to can get back to talking about herself.

But occasionally I do get a comment. In my Letter of New York of May 1st, there's a response by a New Yorker called Mandy. Mandy explains that New Yorkers don't like inviting people home as they never know if they might be axe-murderers. And more recently, a New Yorker signing as "JK" emailed and said his response to my Letter From New York column was a typical New York one - he didn't care.

I am glad "JK" was so honest, as I'd never really thought about the possibility that New Yorkers didn't care. But I think he's right. Living here I have not found them to be a caring lot. As a group, they do not care about what other people think or how other people feel. And they certainly do not see themselves as hosts to the myriad of "foreigners" who come to these shores.

It isn't that New Yorkers come across as hostile to people from overseas. They aren't of the Pauline Hanson ilk, where they'd have us all shipped back to where we came from. They just aren't interested in finding out about us, our children, our country or our culture.

I am not for a moment saying that the non-interest applies only "foreigners". I don't think New Yorkers really care about anyone but themselves, when it really comes down to it. I believe that it is this lack of care for one's fellow man is what has earned New York its reputation for rudeness. Not only are New Yorkers not interested, they don't even pretend to be for the sake of courtesy. And they are proud of their city's reputation. They see it as New York's endearing eccentricity. Attempts to encourage "civil" behaviour are greeted with public outcry. It is as if somehow the very soul of New York would disappear, if people started being nice! In the New York Times of May 4th '98, author Ian Tattersall wrote, "One would hope that we could all agree that sterilizing New York would be far too high a price to pay for civilizing it."

Yes, you are perfectly correct, "JK". New Yorkers could not care less.

I wouldn't say that all Australians are tolerant people by any means. God knows, we have our right-of-Gengis-Khan-people. And Pauline Hanson is enough to make most of us cringe with shame. But I would say that we are a friendly lot, especially on an individual level. And "my home is your home" is what we at least try to pretend we believe.

I remember as a child, a book about immigrant life by a Nino Culotta, called "They're a Weird Mob", which described the experiences of an Italian migrant "assimilating" into Australian culture. It was a great hit, and was made into a film. Even the most hardened conservatives started looking at the migrant issues.

Back then we called our immigrants "migrants". I think that it was later that they became known as "New Australians", and later "newcomers".

From the fifties on, Australians started becoming aware of issues facing immigrants. In the early sixties, when my high school in Melbourne was flooded with teenagers from eastern Europe, there was a concerted effort made by the teachers to educate the Australian born amongst us, to learn about the cultures of our new classmates, and to welcome them into our homes.

Faux pas were made and Australia tried to turn the new arrivals into Australian clones. By the eighties the general view, at least that pushed by the government and the enlightened, was that we should aim at a true multi-culturalism. We should accept people as Italian Australians for example, rather than attempt to wipe out their culture by totally assimilating them into our way of life.

And even though there are Australians opposed to this approach, most Australians, when it comes down to it, on an individual level, accept and invite into their home, those from abroad.

After living in my home country, where for almost my entire life there has been a national debate on how to best treat immigrants, I suddenly became one. And although I was an immigrant in a country where I didn't look different from the majority of the people, and where I spoke the same language, I was in for a few surprises.

I made the big mistake of expecting that America would be like Australia in its attitude to newcomers. After all, both countries are nations of immigrants. But it's a different ball-game here. I am no "New American" or "new arrival". I am a foreigner and I have a special card with my fingerprints embedded into it. The card spells out that I am a "Resident Alien". I am supposed to carry it at all times. And no one asks me about my culture. Only very occasional trivial questions like, "does Paul Hogan eat rattlesnakes?"

But what has really shocked me is that I cannot see any real hospitality here. Or not the sort I would have expected. I think that it must be a New York thing. Certainly I'm not alone in how I feel. I've had email from Australians living in New York, saying that they feel exactly as I do. And I've had email from Americans, saying not to make the mistake of thinking all of America is like New York. Quite the contrary, they say.

One thing is almost certain though. It is not likely any New Yorker is going to discuss these issues with me. I go with "JK"s "analysis". They just don't care. New Yorkers are like that. Just as they don't "do color", they don't do "caring". That is how New York is. "Only in New York!" "You got a problem with that?"

Fine. Who am I to disagree with how another culture sees itself. If these people want to live a life of isolation, in a social world where even guest lists for parties are merchandise, where social interaction is more and more being done electronically, so be it. What I do ask is for an acknowledgement from the "don't care" people that others don't have to like it. And for them to consider that maybe, just maybe, they are missing out on something. It's called "life".

Kate Juliff