The other day I happened to turn on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. I hardly ever watch it, for one since it’s on CNN, and I find the dialogue over-reaching, but I guess that’s his style and it goes with the dramatics of CNN.
On this particular episode they were in Queens out of all places. The Queens of my childhood was on TV with images of Rockaway, Jackson Heights, Jamaica and other neighborhoods. Bourdain visited several restaurants and talked to business owners, residents, many of them immigrants. When they focused on Jackson Heights, I immediately recognized the place they filmed— right outside the 7 train near the street closed off to traffic. They must have filmed it during the election or right after, because there were protests that felt critical, right around inauguration. I realized I had been away from my city in the pivotal moment when people were most distraught. I was in Peru during the inauguration. I could think of no better place to be, although it did feel like I was taking the easy way out, by abandoning the place I called home since I was a child.
The Queens episode was such an emblematic one, especially within the context of the current political climate. As one friend said, it reminded her that this was always a nation of immigrants; Queens was proof that immigrants made this nation prosperous by finding economic opportunities, moving out of poverty and helping others along the way. I could see it in these neighborhoods, where people of different nationalities coexisted and found a new identity far more home. The changes from one ethnic enclave to another are often within a few blocks or segments; they don’t constitute large areas, in what is referred to as little Italy, little India, little morocco or little Korea for example. The episode reminded me of the physical smallness of Queens: all the stores next to each other, the small enclaves, the hidden stores found down a flight of stairs, the narrow corridors, the anonymous faces on the street, the silence of the train platform before an incoming train, the cool energetic breeze that is ever-present in the fall.
To many immigrants, Queens represents a starting point where anything is possible, where you can find opportunities and a feeling of being welcomed. The people who came before you, know the struggle of starting a small business without a storefront, job hunting, going to school, juggling different jobs, or learning a new language. There was a story about Korean man who had been adopted and never really knew much about Korean food, until he started his own restaurant business in America. He found his Korean roots among other Koreans in a country far away from his own. There was the story of a Mexican woman selling tamales in Junction Blvd. She made them in her kitchen. During first couple of years, she would get arrested along with her husband , since they did not have a license to sell until they bought a registered cart. In a couple of years, she turned the business into a full-time job, selling over 2,000 tamales on weekends. There was a story about a guy from Jamaica who bought a historical Irish bar in Jamaica and saved it from closing.
Being away from Queens has allowed me to appreciate it a bit more. I remember growing tired of the crowds, but now I think back to the times where I found it mesmerizing; it was a chance to feel distant yet close to the field of people walking at their own rhythm. There was something comforting about loosing yourself in a crowd.