Last week, I had the rare—but I think healthy—experience of feeling like a foreigner in my own country. A friend of mine also interning in the city had suggested that we take a trip off the island and visit Queens—Flushing in particular.
Flushing is known for being the second largest Chinatown in the city, and my friend assured me that it was even better than Manhattan’s version, which I had already visited. I wasn’t sure what “better” meant exactly, but nevertheless we hopped on the 7 and went to find out.
And I have to say—it was better.
It’s hard for me to explain why. Manhattan Chinatown is wedged between Little Italy and the Financial District on the Lower East Side, and maybe this restriction on it’s expansion is what made it feel so cramped to me—that, or it was the influx of tourists crowding the streets (that’s not me anymore, right?). Not that I didn’t enjoy the experience of being there, because I did, but the space in Flushing was much different. It was more spread out; the buildings weren’t as close to each other, the streets weren’t as narrow. There were still tons of people, but definitely less tourists. It actually reminded me of China.
Quick tangent: I have in fact been to China—Hong Kong actually, an important distinction. My uncle works/lives there and got married when I was ten to a woman he met there, so Hazel and family flew to Hong Kong for the wedding. Granted, I was only ten, and the jet lag combined with my youth and culture shock didn’t make it an incredibly meaningful experience at the time, but to some degree I can look back, remember, and appreciate what I observed there.
Anyway, back to Flushing. As soon as we climbed the last step from the subway, I felt very much no longer in New York—or I guess you could argue that where I was was incredibly “New York,” given the diversity of the city. But I definitely felt that I was no longer among the demographic majority.
This wasn’t an unfamiliar or unpleasant feeling (see above tangent), just unexpected. Thankfully, my companion on this journey speaks near-fluent Chinese. She led me to an amazing dim-sum place, spoke to all the waiters in Chinese, and helped add up the bill, which was also in Chinese. I just sat there, smiled at everyone, and ate the things that she told me were meat-free.
Later, we went on the hunt for a bookstore my friend wanted to go to in the area. I was excited because I have yet to meet a bookstore I didn’t want to spend hours in. But then we got there, and I stupidly realized that all the books were printed in Chinese. I awkwardly flipped through a parenting magazine and looked at pictures of too-happy pregnant women until we left, feeling very uneducated.
“I want to learn Mandarin,” I confidently declared as we left the bookshop. “I have all summer! That should be enough time, don’t you think?”
My friend—raised bilingual—looked at me with pity. “One of my suitemates took a year of Mandarin in college. She said it was the hardest class of her life.”
Oh. Okay, so maybe I won’t be making too many solo trips to Chinatown this summer.
When it came time to leave, I was surprised at the comfortable feeling that resulted in the routine of entering the subway. Once I was underground, I was back in a world that I knew: swipe Metrocard, go through turnstile, walk to platform, make sure to get on the right train (not that I could get on the wrong one, as this station only services one line, and this was the end of it).
I felt like I’d been away from this familiarity for much longer than the six hours that I actually was. And maybe that was just a bit of what I needed. I’ve been in New York for just about a month now, and it feels very much like home. It just took some “international travel” (the cheapest international travel you’ll find) to realize and appreciate that.