I planned to move to New York after graduating—then Donald Trump was elected
At the end of May, I spent a few days in Manhattan with friends. For three years, I had officially lived in New Haven, attending Yale Law School, but my repeated trips to New York made the city my unofficial residence. I’d take the train on most weekends and get lost in downtown bookstores or wander through Central Park pathways and make my provisional attempts at writing. Always, I failed. There was too much to do, too much to see, too much to think about. Though I refused to admit it, this trip to New York was my farewell to the city I loved. In a few days, I would be moving back to my hometown, Toronto.
That hadn’t always been my plan. I had hoped to move to New York after graduation. I loved the bustling city of dreams: it reinvigorated my creativity. Its zeal for life matched my own restless energy, and its unapologetic individualism infused everything and everyone from Harlem to the Village. New York is the centre of both commerce and literature, and I wanted a foot in each of these worlds. I had vague plans to work in consulting or policy or media. There was also a simpler reason for my exile to New York: I wanted to make money. I have never had much of it in my life, especially after eight years of higher education that took me from Toronto to Kingston to Paris to Cambridge to New Haven all on scholarships, grants and loans. My consciousness had swelled with ideas, and I finally wanted to begin my post-law school life in the most wondrous of cities.
Part of my decision to return to Toronto was personal. I did not have a job lined up in New York, and I did not want to work for a big corporate law firm. Of course, I had no money, and it is impossible to live in New York without a trust fund or a large paycheque coming in every month. (No coincidence that the money- and status-obsessed 45th president comes from the very core of Manhattan.) Plus, my student visa gave me only 90 days to switch my immigration status or leave the country—and this was no time to be running afoul of American immigration authorities.
The bigger part of my decision to leave was political. I have experienced—and loved—the great American traditions of free speech and intellectual dissent. Americans, in general, are an innocent and buoyant bunch: they wanted to know what I thought and where I was going, whereas in England, people pegged me as a Pakistani and couldn’t shake the colonial and class baggage that came with that label. Migrants and minorities have transformed and refreshed the United States for centuries. I am still filled with hope by such a schizophrenic, contradictory, optimistic and self-analytical nation, and no presidential election will change that.
But I am also aware of what is happening around the U.S. to people who look like me. For someone with my ethnicity and name, 9/11 had made moving to New York more difficult, but it was 11/9 that really changed my mind. It is not just the vile rhetoric being directed at Muslims and immigrants, but the violence, hate crimes and visits from deportation agents that have compromised the lives of so many people. If the glowing torch of the Statue of Liberty represented one American tradition, the dark shadow the statue cast over the waters of New York was the other.
Fleeing America out of fear, while a reasonable decision, felt like abandoning the fight to define what America stood for. But, at the same time, my home country beckoned. In Canada, a youthful, progressive government was blooming, and I wanted to be part of it. My formative years in Canada—from age 16 to age 25—took place under a conservative regime that made divisiveness and small-mindedness its raison d’etre. For all of the criticisms of the current Liberal government, it is standing up for the principles of freedom and inclusion at home and abroad, protecting environmental standards and, most importantly, defending rule-based order. That order was constructed after World War II so that future generations like mine would be saved from the scourges of barbarism and national insanity.
The world is changing rapidly. Our time is a revolutionary era that will be remembered either as a triumph of reason or a victory for the enemies of open society. It would be selfish for me to decamp to New York to pursue my literary ambitions when the current moment called for public service. New York was always going to be nearby, but our transition to a new age would soon be over, and what it left behind would scar or heal my generation.
I landed in Toronto a couple weeks after graduation, and the first things I saw at the airport were turban- and hijab-wearing customs officers. One of them glimpsed my passport and simply said, “Welcome home.” I had never heard those two sweet words from a government agent, and something in me suddenly realized that I had made the right decision. In the city, it was Ramadan, and it was Pride—the fact that the Muslim holy month was co-existing peacefully with the celebration of gay rights seemed to me a perfect encapsulation of the mutual respect that Toronto engendered among its residents.
Walking through Trinity Bellwoods Park with my brothers, it dawned on me that the most improbable thing had happened while I was away: Canada had become cool. Old, sleepy, provincial Canada was now the centre of the liberal order, and the hope of progressivism. Everyone from former vice president Joe Biden to European diplomats and public intellectuals had declared Canada to be the defender of the international system. We had somehow gone from being a global outlier to a global champion of citizens in all their various colours and hues. Even in the realm of culture, where Canada has historically been lacking, the country has caught up. The Weeknd, Drake and Alessia Cara were all from Toronto. Montreal boys Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi were running the most dynamic media company in the world. I could go on, from Broadway to fiction. The tempo and pace of the city had changed, but what had not changed was the crucial ingredient that made life north of the 49th parallel so idyllic: safety, security and the sense of disparate citizens living and thriving together.
I miss New York terribly. One day, I’ll return. But, for now, it’s good to be home.