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US (NYC) US Travel

Five questions not to ask New Yorkers when you’re building a travel writing portfolio

If travel writing is all about storytelling, then I’m in big trouble

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This guy didn’t want to answer any of my deep questions. Photo: M. Yung

As a Midwesterner and an aspiring travel writer visiting the Big Apple over spring break, I wanted to use a trip to New York City to build my portfolio. Sounds easy enough, right?

However, good travel writing is all about storytelling, or so the big-time travel bloggers tell me. And in order to tell a story, one must fully immerse oneself in a new culture. One must talk with the natives, learn the local customs, and ask the hard questions. Y’know, the questions that reveal fresh cultural perspectives and which way is north.

Watch out world, my travel storytelling is gonna take off any minute based on the slew of revelatory conversations I generated with New Yorkers by asking them these five riveting questions:

Number 1: Where am I?

I asked this question of a 60-something man standing against a concrete column at LaGuardia Airport. I was trying to find the pick-up spot for the Uber I had reserved. “D Terminal. The lower,” he informed me before shifting his feet and looking away.

See what I mean? There’s good fodder for a story.

Number 2: How do we get to the ferry?

The 20-something construction worker rose from the barrel he was leaning against and walked toward us. I think I had interrupted the break he had been taking at the far west end of Huron Street in Greenpoint. He pointed one block down, toward India Street, just south of where we stood. “Go through all the construction, keep to the right, and you’ll get there,” he offered.

Can’t wait to build a ten-minute read off that one, I told myself.

Number 3: Why do you think I need a fork?

Just as I uttered this profound query,  a rice noodle slinked off my chopsticks, splashing a drop of broth onto my glasses. The young waiter at Lao Ma Spicy in Greenwich Village had just walked by our table and offered me an alternative utensil. Apparently, I seemed to be struggling.

I mulled over his offer. My stomach rumbled. “Yes, that would be fine,” I said. I set down my chopsticks, blotted my glasses with the corner of my napkin, and waited for a fork to appear.

A travel tale for the ages, folks.

Number 4: Is this train headed south?

When I asked this head-scratcher, I had just become separated from my daughter as we headed back to our flat one evening. She had boarded the train; I missed it. Man, those doors move fast. So I hopped on another train on the opposite side of the platform. After finding a seat, I wanted to verify that I was indeed on the right bullet to Brooklyn. I asked an Orthodox Jewish man next to me; he looked up from his scriptures and confirmed that yes, the G train would take me south.

A novel will come from that encounter. I just know it.

Number 5: How do we get out of here?

After wandering around the subway maze that exists below Times Square, I posed this question to a man striding by in a navy blue uniform. He looked to the ceiling, waved his finger back and forth as if tracing some imaginary constellation and replied, pointing off in the distance, “Take that train to Court Square.”

Yet another meaningful exchange.

All right, maybe my conversations weren’t the kind to evoke rich and meaningful dialogues upon which to build fascinating tales of travel and intrigue. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll be able to focus on the people and places I’m experiencing instead of merely focusing on how to navigate public transit.

So, thank you, New Yorkers, for exploring my existential wanderings on street corners and in subway stations, and for not ducking away too quickly when you realized that I was just another tourist, confused, bewildered, and amazed at the city you know and love so well.


My daughter and I visited NYC for a week in mid-March. We asked questions when we needed to, just not ones that will give my travel writing the shot in the arm that it needs. It was a great trip, nevertheless. Feel free to leave a comment or follow my blog for more. And thanks for reading!

By marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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