Every year, roughly 80,000 travelers from at least ninety countries pass through the doors of HI New York City, the largest hostel in the Americas. Each week, Narratively’s Daniel Krieger will spend a few hours in the landmarked building on New York’s Upper West Side, listening to their stories for our Hostel People series.
Shiyun “Cat” Fan, 25, Shanghai, China
What are you doing in New York? I’m trying to run away from my studio (I’m studying architecture at Syracuse).
Do you like NYC? The first time I came, I had culture shock. Walking down Fifth Avenue, I felt uncomfortable with all those people. I don’t know why this feeling was so strong since I’m from Shanghai, which is an international mega-city. But the skyscrapers here terrified me. The subway was also terrifying. It’s very old and dark and hard to understand. I felt lost and excluded from the city, and I was worried that my accent would make me sound like an outsider. But this time, I don’t have that feeling anymore.
What changed? This past summer I had an internship at an architecture firm. I met some open-minded architects, and that made me more willing to talk with other people, even though my English isn’t good enough to express all my thoughts. So now I’m able to confront this strong city. Now when I walk down the street, I’m not terrified of the skyscrapers. They don’t seem like they’re trying to expel me. That might sound strange to you, but I feel that every object has a spirit. I know that a wall and a table don’t have a lot of thoughts, but I can’t help but think they have some.
What is your favorite building in New York? St. Patrick’s Cathedral! I feel a sense of peace and delight when I see this Gothic church sculpted with white marble. I like to describe her as a maiden. She looks so emotional compared to her neighbors.
What was your New York moment? Walking on the streets is the most intimate way to communicate with the city. That’s how I can appreciate the organization of streets and blocks, what architects call the “city fabric.” If a city plan is a piece of cloth, you can see all the threads when you walk through it. New York City is famous for its grid plan, like tartan checks. But Broadway is special because it moves diagonally. One evening I decided to follow it, going downtown. As the street numbers got smaller, I found more people, more billboards, more light, and finally arrived at the shiniest point in Manhattan, Times Square. Then I decided to end my walk and go back to the hostel on the 1 train. But first a few street performers and their audience gave my walk the perfect ending. We formed a circle, singing “All of Me” together. I felt connected and fully accepted by the city.
What was the best part of your trip? I went to an immersive theater performance called “Sleep No More,” which is a New York version of “Macbeth.” It’s very popular among Chinese students. I don’t know what it was about, but it gave me a fresh experience. You wear a mask and follow the actors around the building. There was no fourth wall. A witch kissed my hand. Another invited me to a teeny tiny room where she asked me to drink a white liquid. “You look so afraid,” she said. I drank it. It was just milk.
Have you made any connections here at the hostel? I talked with a Chinese woman who’s sleeping in the bed above mine. She is here to look for a college so she can study film. She’s 46 and planning to get divorced. She wants to bring her six-year-old son here to start a new life. In China, middle-aged women don’t think about going back to school because people think it’s too late. She is brave to try. She told me she is inspired by the city and decided to apply to NYU. I’m going to help her do that.
Now I’m thinking that after my graduation I’d like to stay in New York.
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Come back to Narratively next Wednesday for more Hostel People.
This interview has been edited and condensed. HI NYC management has granted permission for this project, but plays no role in shaping the stories and has no affiliation with Narratively.