Alastair Cameron's Letter from America

News, views and opinions from the one kiwi expat sent to New York University on a Fulbright Scholarship to study his masters of law.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Who's Who

People are the theme of this blog. Believe it or not, I'm not spending my entire time reading, studying and attending lectures, but am also managing a bit of socialising in between. The idea of this post is to give you an idea of who I spend my days with (outside the classroom, that is). I've also posted some new photos to show you who some of these people are - follow the link and check them out.

The starting point is my flatmates, Quang and Harold, who I probably see more than anyone else. The first observation to make is that they're great; it was definitely good luck ending-up in a flat with these two.

In the photo here, Quang is on the left and Harold on the right. The girl is Katie, an Aussie who lives down the hall. The photo was taken on my birthday, when Quang, Harold, Katie and her roomate Fan surprised me by buying a (delicious) New York cheesecake from one of the local bakeries, and a t-shirt from the "Grey Dog Grill", a popular nearby cafe. Very kind of them.

Harold is Dutch, doing his LLM in Corporate Studies. Quang is a kiwi like me, also doing his LLM but concentrating in international legal studies. We're not sure whether Quang and I were deliberately put together, but it seems too much of a coincidence to be otherwise. Perhaps the most bizarre thing is that Quang also lived in Wellington, and yet we didn't know each other - virtually unheard of when it comes to such kiwi connections.

We get on well personally, and also work easily as a flat. We don't get in each other's way in the common areas, which consist only of the very small kitchen and bathroom. There are no territorial fights over the shelves in the fridge, and we don't appear to drink each other's orange juice or milk. We don't cook communally, but we'll eat together if our timetables allow it.

So other than Quang and Harold, there is also a core group of New Zealanders who I see pretty regularly. Nina and Sarah are also LLM students, and James is completing his masters of journalism. It's great to meet people from elsewhere, but also a comfort to have New Zealanders nearby, especially when you're sick of not being understood half the time...

And then there are the Aussies. The whole ANZAC thing comes to the fore when NZers and Australians meet overseas, totally surrounded by people from "elsewhere". There is undoubtedly an unspoken, natural connection that occurs, making it easy to get to know each other. Katie is in the photo above and some others appear in the photos online.

Otherwise, the wider LLM group, of which there are around 400 from over 50 countries, are a great bunch. We all worked hard when we first arrived to prioritise each other, meaning that invitations to dinner, drinks, sight-seeing or whatever were often extended far and wide. That predictably caused a few organisational issues, as numbers for restaurants quickly swelled into the twenties, but this is New York, so you can always find somewhere to accommodate the group. The point is that it was pretty easy to get to know people, so that now there is always a familiar and friendly face not far away.

NYU organised various receptions and social functions at the start of the term which provided helpful opportunities to meet others in the programme. One of the best was a sunset boat cruise down the Hudson from Chelsea Pier, around the bottom of Manhattan to Brooklyn Bridge, and then back via the Statute of Liberty. From left in the photo: Laura and Bruce (Australia), Dan (USA), Katie (Australia), me, Felix and Carston (Germany).

As with California, I gel most easily with the Europeans (including Australians, Canadians, South Africans etc), and interestingly, the Indians. Which is not to say, of course, that I haven't really enjoyed meeting the Turks, Filipinos, Koreans and Jamaicans as well.

But what of the Americans? They're an aloof bunch in some ways. It is evidently a bit of a joke amongst the American JD students (JD being the American law degree), that New York University attracts hundreds of supposedly interesting LLM students from all around the world, and then the Americans never talk to them. This is an exaggeration, but it is true to say that the LLMs tend to stick together and thus, by definition, so do the Americans.

I think this is mainly a product of our programmes and orientation. The first year JD students, who arrive at the same time as the LLMs, get inducted together and divided into sections of 100 with whom they share classes, tutorials, study groups and so on. The practice, it seems, is that they also form their social networks almost exclusively within their sections. The result is that when us LLM students arrive, first year JD students are busy in their own sections, and second and third year JD students already have established networks from their previous years studying. So even though we share classes, we don't interact to a huge degree.

Interestingly, the exceptions are the few American LLM students, who do hang-out with the foreign LLMs. I guess that suggests the segregation is more a product of the programme rather than nationality itself.

The other point that supports this theory is that it is possible to meet American students through other means. For instance, I've got to know several people through OUTLaw, the law students lesbian and gay group. The other student groups provide a similar opportunity. For instance, this weekend I went on a "hike" organised through the Environmental Law Students Society, and spent a long time talking with the Americans who went along. I also attended the first meeting of the NYU LawDems (the law student Democrats group) and signed onto their listserv. I haven't done much since, but opportunities will no doubt arise.

What I'm trying to say is that when I have actually come face-to-face with the Americans, they are interested in knowing where I'm from and what I'm doing over here. And the interest is genuine, contrary to some reasonably prevalent national stereotypes that persist...

Eating lunch during our hike in the New Jersey Palisades Park, on the banks of the Hudson with the Bronx in the background. From left, Kevin (USA), Sowl (Korea), Atthi (India), Stephanie (USA), Menz (Jamaica) and Bryant (USA). Note also that the weather is sunny, a merciful relief after eight days of solid rain!

And then off campus (because one's life can't all be law school), I have my lovely kiwi friends, David and Barrie, who took me to dinner the first night I arrived in New York. As well as Andrew, who kindly put me up before I was able to move into my accommodation.


I just need to take a short deviation here to share a quintessentially kiwi anecdote. Having said that, it is so extreme that it can't even be said to be typically NZ...

David, Barrie, Jacque Keane and I had brunch in Chelsea at a place named Cafeteria one Sunday morning when Jacque (a friend of Hamish's for those who don't know) was over here on holiday. David and Barrie knew the waitress in the cafe, and introduced her to us. The waitress looked at Jacque and asked "what is your surname". We wondered why. Jacque said it was "Keane". The waitress said that her and Jacque knew each other.

A bizarre coincidence we all thought, but not that extreme since Jacque had actually lived in New York for quite a while several years ago. But no, the waitress then asked whether Jacque had been an exchange student in Norway in 1987, to which Jacque had to answer that she had been. In a voice the whole cafe would have heard, the waitress them reminded Jacque that they had in fact traveled around Europe together that year.

So of all the brunch places in New York we could have chosen that morning, and of all the waitresses that could have worked in them, we chose the one in which the American waitress knew Jacque, a New Zealander, from Norway in 1987. Spoooooky.


And finally, but not in any diminished by being mentioned last, there are my extremely generous American friends, Darren and Eric, who have made me feel very welcome in their fair city. The five of us (Darren, Eric, David, Barrie and I) went to dinner for my birthday, and had a whale of a time. Photos here.

So that's my social network in a nutshell. Exactly what I do with these people will form the basis of future posts. Given the amount of work I need to do in the next two months, I suspect most of the socialising for the term has already occurred!


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