Some of the most vivid memories from my childhood were made during the weekends I spent with my parents in Flushing. Located in Queens, New York City, Flushing seemed to my young immigrant self the antithesis of America. Signs with Asian characters hung over storefronts and faces like mine crowded the streets. It didn’t look like America at all.
I found myself rejecting this place, despite the comfort it seemed to bring to my parents. I didn’t understand why we needed to make the long drive to Queens from New Jersey just to do our grocery shopping in shabby markets with wet and dirty floors, when there was a clean and brightly lit American supermarket just down the street from our house. And I didn’t understand why my mother insisted on having my hair cut at a Chinese salon located in the back of a food court when all my friends got theirs at the Supercuts back in our New Jersey suburb. How unnecessary it was, I remembered thinking to myself, for a neighborhood like this to exist in a country like America.
This past December, I went home to New Jersey for the holidays. And I found myself — just like the good old days — in the backseat of my parents’ car, making the pilgrimage to Flushing. It had been over five years since I last walked down Main Street, the neighbourhood’s busiest strip, but it seemed untouched by the passage of time. And maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been missing China, which I haven’t visited in more than two years, or perhaps it’s just the natural process of growing up and learning to embrace my culture rather than to shun it, but what once seemed so “unnecessary” all of a sudden felt like home.
The past two years have been difficult for the whole of humanity, but they’ve been especially trying for Asian communities around the world. Not only have border closures, strict testing requirements, and steep travel costs severed many immigrants from their home countries, but Asians living in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere have also been subjected to a disturbing rise in racist attacks, both verbal and physical. For generations, many Asians, and especially Asian Americans, have told ourselves that, if we just keep our heads down and work hard, we can avoid racism. But no amount of hard work can shield you when your adopted country’s president publicly calls a global pandemic the “China Virus.”
Neighborhoods like Flushing — along with Chinatown in San Francisco, Prato in Italy, and thousands more scattered across practically every continent in the world — are increasingly important, as both communities and sanctuaries. They’ve always offered immigrants authentic Asian food and good bargains. Increasingly, however, they’re also becoming places of solace, solidarity, and protection. On their streets, you don’t worry about looking or speaking differently from everyone else. On their streets, there’s a silent but mutual understanding that the fear, confusion, and desperation you’re feeling is shared. And on their streets, those who attack and harass the vulnerable may at least suffer consequences for doing so. Far from being unnecessary, they’re vital for the preservation of identity, solidarity, and resilience.
Perhaps that’s why, on this latest trip, Flushing seemed to transform in front of my eyes. I used to find its stubborn self-reliance embarrassing, a reflection of residents’ inability to assimilate and adapt. But now, that self-reliance signals empowerment: the shops selling all kinds of unconventional Asian delicacies, the businessowners who hardly speak any English, the streets filled with smells and sounds that cannot be found anywhere else, and the pedestrians who crowd the sidewalks like they’re back home. It’s not that they’re rejecting the host country. Rather, they’re expressing a pure form of pride. At a time when one of our homes has never felt more distant, and the other never more unwelcoming, this pride is crucial. So, the shops keep selling their delicacies, the businessowners keep speaking in their mother tongues, and the streets remain as fragrant and lively as ever, filled with people who refuse to put their lives on hold despite advice to stay indoors and out of harm’s way.
On my grandfather’s very first trip to New York in 1993 for work, he was put up at a hotel in Flushing. Recently, I had the chance to ask him about it, what it was like back then.
“Exactly the same,” he replied. “Nothing has changed.”
During periods of uncertainty, consistency can bring relief. And this is what I felt during my last visit to Flushing. Despite all the trials and tribulations of the past two years, neighborhoods like this continue to flourish and continue to be necessary.
That day in December, I relished all that Flushing has to offer. I ate the street food, I chatted with the fishmonger at the market, I even got my hair cut at that salon in the back of the food court. For a brief moment, I felt like I was back in Shanghai. But it was more than nostalgia. It was a sense of pride. I am proud of Flushing the same way I am proud to be Chinese American, of my culture and heritage, and of my newly discovered voice as a member of a minority. And the best part? For a place that takes you so far away, it’s only a forty-minute drive from home.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Pedestrians make their way along a street in Flushing, in the New York borough of Queens, U.S., April 18, 2021. Ed Jones/AFP via People Visual)