New York, I hate to love you

new york city, august 2023

Areena Akhter
10 min readAug 4, 2023

Author’s note, sitting at a wine bar on a Thursday night: it’s pretty late into the year for a life update, but this year was also unlike any other so far. I spent it out of school and experiencing life – real adult life, full of Trader Joe’s trips and real adult dates and (two!) big girl jobs. I was so consumed with finishing up my last two internships before I return to Waterloo for my final year of school (super senior year!) that I honestly haven’t had a single weekend to sit down and write about it.

But wow, how I have changed and evolved and grown over these past eight months in USA (god bless her.) I have never felt more like myself, but also like I still have so much left to learn. I’m excited to start sharing my experiences here again, although they will likely arrive out of order. I’m currently spending my last three weeks on my favourite island in the world reminiscing on everything it has taught me in four short months. So, I wanted to start by sharing my thoughts on this heavily-romanticized city and its millions of indescribable inhabitants. New York, here are the 10 things I can’t help but love about you.

as taylor would say, welcome to new york.

In your first weeks on this island, the city will grab you by the shoulders and shake your money and your health and your livelihood right out of you. Especially if you’re living where I am, at the mouth of Hell(‘s Kitchen), any rational human being would crave sanity. You’ll find yourself asking: where is the grass? Touching it will have never felt like such a pressing issue.

As you set out in search of any signs of natural life, as I did within hours of landing at Newark Liberty, you’ll stumble on literally everything else. Bodegas at every intersection with endless options for the perfect pick me up juice, tourists in search of the green lady or the pointy building, rats, packs of cockroaches. The most vibrant art and music and the smell of different cuisines wafting out of incredibly overpriced restaurants. Conversations in every language and accent possible, underground comedy cellars and comedians disguised as daytime software engineers. Flocks of the hottest people in the world dressed like they would on your favourite primetime TV show. What they say about New York 10s is definitely, 100% true.

Somewhere by the chess players that line the edge of Washington Square Park, it’ll dawn on you that nothing here is natural.

This city is a feat of humanity, a man-made miracle in the middle of white American suburbia. I imagine this is what it felt like to live in Rome as it was “being built,” as they say, or San Francisco before engineers like myself descended upon the city. Although today’s New York is undeniably gentrified, its energy still feels palpably different than any of the four American cities I’ve lived in – with demographics that reflect that. These boroughs are so fundamentally full of life, brimming with an undercurrent of energy that makes you realize that yes, it’s nearly impossible to live and survive here. But if you can, your life will feel like nothing else in the country.

a journey through lower Manhattan

I had hoped that I might hate New York. I spent the last year building a life on the other side of the country in the tech Mecca, and when I left San Francisco behind I didn’t think I could love a city more. I have friends there, a community of women who, like me, are trying to ascertain what it means to put their own needs, career, and identities before anybody else’s, for the very first time. I have a career there, a job where I felt the most passion I’ve ever felt about work. I didn’t really want to feel torn again, like I was giving something up by choosing to start my life post graduation in San Francisco. I had hoped that I would arrive in this city and something inside of me would “click,” like I would realize I’m definitely a West Coast Girl and leave New York behind forever. But such is the duality of life: no matter what you choose, something will always be missing – and without my time here, I would have never realized how much outside of my career I have left to discover.

To be fair, it’s actually incredibly easy to hate New York. You can wake up with a full bank account and inevitably return home in overdraft. You can aspire to be the healthiest most balanced “that girl” and then decide to go out in the East Village at 11pm on Friday night, tomorrow’s workout class begone. You can step in literal shit and be expected to rejoin corporate America within 15 minutes, you are most likely either working for the richest people in America or you are one of the poorest people in the city stuffed into an apartment that should really only be called someone’s closet, working too many jobs to feel like a human. You often don’t really feel human here. You feel detached, like you’re running on and off the subway, from one appointment to another, which is exactly why they call this city a rat race. You’re quite literally racing the rats. It’s exhausting and overstimulating and I’m saying this as a software engineer who is making more than 80% of the city and still has a bathroom that smells like sewage, no real kitchen, and dreads her commute to work. I can’t imagine what this city does to people who pursue things more meaningful than settling for playing a role in Corporate America in exchange for a ticket to Carrie Bradshaw’s lifestyle.

But still, the city draws us in: it feeds on our desperation, our lust and desire and belief in the potential that Something is right around the next busy street corner. Success, creativity, meaning, love, fulfillment, excitement.

Manhattan was built on a foundation of energy, the palpable undercurrent that its newcomers share when sneaking a glance at each other in a busy subway car. Imagine the tension you feel looking at a stranger in an airport, multiplied by a thousand because you feel it everyday in every interaction you have. Nothing here is familiar, which means everything is full of potential.

a photo stolen from a beautiful new friend i met at an east village housewarming

I think this is why I love New York. Like most untethered twenty-somethings, my entire life stares at me like a book full of blank pages I have one hundred percent liberty to fill. And this summer, I was finally in the one city in the world that literally lives for the plot. I could write entire chapters of my life here, define and rewrite and edit myself endlessly until I die, because that’s literally what the world’s greatest creators did here. They lived to their fullest here, endlessly creating and plotting and inventing and imagining. At twenty-one, that is the type of life I want to live, blessed by the freedom of no commitments for the first time in my life. Over the past four months, I barely scratched the surface of the people I could meet here, the culture and cuisine and stories and dreams that I could learn about. When speaking to a new friend about what draws us into the city, it’s this: the endless human stories to discover, the connections you can make with people who are equally as lonely and unsure and open-minded as you are about love, about life, and about everything in between.

And so my inner romantic has thrived here, in the city that challenges you to remain open to new experiences every minute of every day. Each one can be woven into a new story, a new romantic or platonic connection, a new favourite spot in the city that you feel some weird sense of ownership over, as if you’re an explorer and New York is your uncharted sea. (A pause here to acknowledge that this is why the city’s longterm inhabitants hate gentrifiers who say things like this: I do acknowledge that new people shouldn’t move to New York without an awareness of its history, and I want to learn more about how I can do my part to make the city feel like it’s not being “overtaken” by newcomers. I don’t know enough about this yet.)

life in the city through my lens — entertainment, love, food, all you could need

Here in the city that never sleeps, I woke up to the expansiveness of life. I fell in love again. With the possibilities presented by a cute boy in a suit on the train who I’ll never see again, on four-hour dates that spanned 20 blocks and shifted my perspective on life. But mostly, I experienced a new form of love that is everything but the impassioned, romantic love I’ve sought after for the past couple years. Instead, it has looked like deep and steady platonic love with souls that align with mine. Like the kind of dates only your girlfriends can be thoughtful enough to plan for you. Long gossip sessions over a pot of chai at Qawah House, late summer evening walks talking about art and creativity through never-ending streets, picnics and brunches and holding on tight to new friends as we dance from one bar to another. It’s running home in a rain shower before curling up on the couch to watch Black Mirror, pausing to observe a couple dancing in Central Park, challenging myself to meet new people at hidden bars in the city. Dancing until our feet hurt and we collapse into the tiny booths at Birria LES for 4am tacos outside La Caverna (we were there before it was an intern hotspot, to be clear.) Love for the peace I’ve found in my routines amidst the chaos of the city, making it to the gym after work and playing a meditative podcast as I catch the shuttle to Grand Central.

I love the life I have carved out for myself here, the never-ending sense of sonder. The realization that mine is just one of millions of complex lives established here, glimmers of light sparkling through the tiny apartment windows that make up the city’s iconic skyline.

city girls in our element

It’s hard to express how long I dreamt of living the life I have today: independent, carefree, naive, in love, successful, finally at peace. Experiencing every corner of the world come together in one city, cultures and backgrounds fusing together at the exact time I’m fusing myself together. Finally realizing that the world exists outside of the one track I’ve been running on my whole life, from high school to college to my internships in the Bay. Learning that my new favourite food is tteokbokki from Ktown, that I need to re-learn to flirt as an adult (imagine, it’s different than when you’re in college!), that I have interests outside of my career that have laid dormant for the past 10 years. Where else would my self-concept have been so challenged, would I have learned that would feel most like myself dancing through the city streets in long floral maxi skirts and vibrant red hair?

At one point, I told my therapist that I was intimidated by how much identity people seem to have here: he responded by asking me, was I really just scared to start building my own?

I am so grateful to my time in the city for never failing to remind me that there is more to my life: more people to meet, more to learn about myself, just more. I had almost forgotten how abundant positive experiences are, as long as you can believe in the possibility of a new future.

Although I won’t be able to start my career in New York (SF I will see you soon, more details to come in a future post), I feel confident that the Universe will bring me back here in my next season of self-evolution. After what felt like an eternity of criss-crossing the continent trying to move on from my past, New York City has reminded me how excited I am to write my future. And in the time between now and when I’m back in my favourite city in the world, I will hold on to its promise, that my next big love (the ever-evolving me) is right around the corner.

never felt more like myself than I did this summer ❤



Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, she/her