The Other Side of Nylonkong

There’s something invigorating about subways in metropolitan cities. Like in an extensive network of rat burrows, people move to and fro, day in and ...

May 2, 2015

Graphic by Justin Lee/TheGazelle
There’s something invigorating about subways in metropolitan cities. Like in an extensive network of rat burrows, people move to and fro, day in and day out. Nudging past waves of strangers, our minds almost come to a halt as we focus our attention on intricate details: the monotonous subway announcements, the hip wear of the person standing next to us or the unsettling kid nagging their mom. Or perhaps, to avoid being seen as that lone rider or creepy stalker, we clutch onto our touch screens in order to feel a little more secure, as if we matter to someone miles away.
At rush hour, exiting subways is always a relief.  Trudging up the single-file steps and wriggling your way out from the odour of overworked office men, you’re greeted by the familiar fog of cigarette smoke and blinding neon lights as you make that final step up. On a Friday night, it’s an exodus from all the blandness of weekday life. Flocks of young expats flood the streets. The cacophony of honking taxis is often mellowed out by the soft tunes of the nearby busker. Politicians, pundits, bankers, you name it — all criss-crossing the very same main avenue. Welcome to the streets of Nylonkong, baby.
Coined in 2008 by Time Magazine as an acronym of New York, London and Hong Kong, Nylonkong largely represents a consortium of cities that share similar features of cultural and financial establishments. Averaging 8 million inhabitants, these cities are often home to the desperate cosmopolitan or the young banker chasing the buck. From the sushi takeout places to the lines awaiting the latest Apple product, these places become multicultural hubs and symbols of modernity and glamour.
To those who don’t mind the occasional sense of claustrophobia, it all seems too good to be true. Friends that are a text away, savoury smells of new flavours around the corner or the eye-candy friend of a friend sitting a table away — the possibilities are endless, and the crave for novelty keeps recycling.
Beyond their similarities in financial might or even political hegemony, these cities directly lure our most innate instincts as social and curious beings. Growing up, the indefinite will to settle is often overshadowed by our yearning for something better, something more exciting. Whether this means the chase for a promotion or finding a compatible partner, the fast-paced nature of such cities makes us thirsty for more. The proximity of friends and colleagues constantly force us to compare our standards of living, keys to fancy cars or stories of weekend getaways. Often times, this shallow calculation may come at the cost of losing sight of what really matters deep down.
Yet a clear way to overcome this dilemma is through looking at the distinction between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Moral crusader of the New York Times David Brooks summarized the difference between the two in his recent article on the moral bucket list:
“The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? ... [Our] culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light.”
In cities full of life and potential, our attempts to define ourselves and root ourselves in meaningful relationships become rather paradoxical. Making sacrifices in order to cultivate virtues that matter may mean forgoing the visible symbols of merit and status. For many, executive titles and spacious apartments are more alluring than the intangible edifices of eulogy virtues. The cost of ignoring family dinners, severing a college relationship or cutting friends that hold different aspirations from yours all seem okay in the face of your entitlements and prospects.
Of course, it's not all that bleak. We were all once that little kid who cried when mom came home too late or who gave spare change to a beggar on the street. Humans, indiscriminate of our differences, were born with immutable characteristics of compassion and empathy, and it’s our choice whether we attune to those values. Cities like Nylonkong can be magical intersections of heartfelt conversations and propelling innovations. There’s a reason why such cities are the cultural and economic hubs of our globalized era, and not all those reasons are corrupting.
Signals that remind us of our innate virtues are pervasive in these cities. Taking the subway past midnight, you may notice the man sitting opposite you, leaning his head against the handle, encircled by bursting bags of miscellaneous items. In those silent walks down the empty subway, you start to rationalize that you probably have it easier: a home to walk towards, a family to hug and a whole future ahead full of choice and possibilities.
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