New York: Melting Pot

Goh Li Sian on New York’s diversity… 

In New York, I don’t quite find my feet until I go to Queens. Manhattan is green and pleasant, its boulevards wide, its skyscrapers stately, but it’s not what I expected. My impression of NYC formed when I watched Rent at age fourteen, and that dark, gritty city I saw on film will always be what rises before my eyes when I think of Alphabet City.

Together with E, whom I am visiting, I take the seven train all the way to the end of its line and get off at Flushing. Two African-American girls sit opposite the both of us loudly discussing a third girl; one of them says broadly and indignantly, “she’s expecting me to be like we were at seventeen.” I want to agree that that’s ludicrous, but I stay put as the train soars above much of Queens – a Korean signboard here, an automobile shop there.

We walk around. We eat – a lot. I have elevenses at a Hong Kong bakery (lamb skewers, the kind you get at the street stalls in Shanghai), lunch at a Malaysian place, churros from a Columbian bakery, coffee at a Greek cafe… When I was four, my family brought me to San Francisco and we went to Chinatown there. I remember thinking that it wasn’t at all like Singapore. The Chinatown in Queens is even less like Singapore, but at this point I have been away from home for over four months and everything has been different. I grasp at the smallest points of reference and here in Chinatown there are many such coordinates. It is as if through a Seurat illusion, the unfamiliar has become familiar.

It is an odd kind of deja vu to see Mandarin (a language I consider myself to struggle with at the best of times) on signboards. I don’t quite blend in, but don’t stick out either, not the way E does. By virtue of being someone who can read the Chinese characters on signs, I seem to take on a positively privileged air of being someone who Knows The Way. We go into a dumpling shop (five potstickers for $1.25) and the woman at the counter smiles fondly at my stumbled Mandarin and gives me extra beancurd. I smile back, guiltily and almost conspiratorially, when I hear her refer, in Mandarin, to E as the foreigner.

“America the melting pot.” I can’t help but feel skeptical of this – the US, for all its pretensions towards diversity, remains stubbornly homogeneous in areas and plays host to a particularly fraught racial landscape. At the same time, here in Queens, the most diverse region in the world, I feel less “othered,” less differentiated, than I ever have as an international student in Oxford. It is as if America’s expansive and inclusive boundaries of national and ethnic identity are flowing to fit around me, whispering: here, now, us.

 Goh Li Sian