A Subway Ride to South Asia

In the borough of Queens, the cultures of the world collide. Without a passport or a visa— with just a subway ticket— you can experience another worldWiki Commons By Priyanka Johnson The No. 7 train line of the New York subway cuts across the island of Manhattan and makes a beeline for the borough of Queens. After it’s last stop on the island, the Secretariat building of the United Nations on East 42nd street, it zips over to where the real international community is tucked away—a com­munity that is as well represented in that borough as they are in the higher echelons by their diplo­mats. As passengers on the 7-train travel eastward, away from Manhattan, the cliché concept of what it means to be “American” fades into the distance. There are no cliché white-bred Amer­icans on this train. Yet seeing the passengers on this train together is so innately American— and so “met­ropolitan New York.” Every time I step off the train at a different stop, I experience a differ­ent culture. These days, I’m off to South-Asia. THE INDIANS OF JACKSON HEIGHTS: The moment I get off the subway, I’m immediately transported to a street somewhere deep in the Indian hinterland. The scene is made com­plete with cheap toys sold on hand­carts, saree stores and shop windows full of greasy sweetmeats and snacks like jalebees and samosas. The street is peopled by a commu­nity that’s formed their own little niche in a global city, a niche where their language is more at home than English. Conversations about South-Asian culture often circle around food, and for good reason. In this little bor­ough not-so-far-away from Manhat­tan, I sniff a mélange of the North, the South, the East and the West of the sub-continent all within a few city blocks. Here in Queens, it’s not geography or climate, but rather the food that signifies the community’s cultural identity. Deep in the south of the Indian sub-continent is a culture that revolves around coconut. From the leasing of land for coconut plantations to the hallowed “profession” of coconut tree climbers, coconuts are central to the region’s identity. Sure enough, I find the coconut in its entire splendor in a South-Indian restaurant in Queens. Pure coconut oil mixed with masala is an accompa­niment that goes with “dosas” a fluffy pancake made with rice flour. While dosas have become a delicacy that is available all over the world, even on hand-drawn carts outside the gates of Columbia, this specific accompani­ment is something that only restau­rants and homes in Kerala, and ap­parently Queens, still serve. It can’t be found easily, not in South-Indian restaurants in Bombay and not even in the fancy South-themed restau­rants in Delhi. It is the kind of au­thenticity that is replicated not for commercial gain but from a true ad­herence and fierce loyalty to custom. A TRIP TO BANGLADESH A few steps from the culture and food of deep-South India is the delta country of Bangladesh, its cultural essence distilled so lucidly in many of the restaurants in the area. In one restaurant I enter, the waiter enthu­siastically trots over to the table. He grins a lot, blushes even more, speaks very little English and uses the menu as an aid to all conversations, point­ing to it whenever speech fails him. He obviously can’t speak English, so I try another South-Asian language, Hindi, in an attempt to have a con­versation over and above the menu. Yet now it’s as if I’m in a perfect re-creation of the sovereign state of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. No other language works here but the native Bengali, sometimes mixed with new trills and lilts on English words that make the language purely its own. Every sense is engaged to transport you to Bangladesh. The olfactory is what hits me first. The quintessen­tial ingredients and ways of cooking create a lingering pervasive aroma. The visual effect starts superficially with the interiors, including the fake plastic flowers in big urns on the win­dowsills and mosaic tiles. But what really makes the scene come alive is the families out for dinner, the groups of men discussing politics and the animation going on downstairs in the party-hall, where a political meeting of some kind is being held. As in most South-Asian countries, the political meeting soon gets out-of-hand. A handful of American police of­ficers are called in to break the meeting up. It feels like an American invasion of a very routine cul­tural process that plays out almost all the time in the homelands of these patrons. PAKISTANI SCARVES AND SHAWLS Next, I go into a store that seems to have been trans­ported here from the northern state of Pakistan. Brightly colored scarves and shawls dress the window of the store. It’s such a depar­ture from my usual high fashion, som­ber blacks and navy blue hues that it beckons every kitschy instinct in me and draws me in. On a political level, most of the time when my community talks about India in reference to Pakistan, or the other way around, there’s talk of terrorism, border disputes and bal­listic missiles. But in spite of my very notably Indian appearance, the Paki­stani store girl greets me with noth­ing but warmth. She looks overjoyed to see a fellow South-Asian. There is so much enthusiasm in her voice as she shows me around. We talk about the longing for home, missing the tropics and how shawls are very useful in New York winters. She feels so sisterly to me that I can’t help feeling we’ve established a con­nection of sorts. I’m pretty sure I’ll never wear that gaudy scarf I bought from her but it’ll always be part of my wardrobe because it served it’s pur­pose in making me feel warm. THE REPLICATION OF AN IDENTITY It’s striking how real a representa­tion of identity and culture the deni­zens of that small borough truly are. I don’t believe any UN delegation, with all of their extensive training on the political history and economy of their nations, can be as real a rep­resentation as these artless folk that live and breathe their culture every­day, even in a foreign land thousands of miles away. I think back to the animosity be­tween the Pakistani and Indian del­egations at the UN and how sharply it contrasts with the camaraderie of my store visit. How the Bangladeshi waiter tried to talk to me, in spite of our linguistic handicaps, about Bol­lywood films and his favorite actor. Some people say New York is a melting pot, but there’s this phrase I’ve heard somewhere that describes it more apt­ly. It’s like a salad bowl where every component retains its distinct flavor. Where each component retains its in­dividuality and uniqueness, yet blends perfectly with the other ingredients. What is notable is that the conflict that characterizes the whole subconti­nent of South-Asia is absent here. A lot about the conflict has been written-off as emanating from cultural differ­ences or long legacies of separation, secession and mistrust. But these very same cultures share the borough of Queens without any of the animosity between them, as exists between the homelands they left behind. Eventually I get back on the train and make my way back to the island. I smile at an Afghani man on his way to work the nightshift in the city and two Indian kids sitting across from him. It’s amazing how these cultures fit perfectly together in one little bor­ough, on one little train, while back in their native lands, they find it difficult to share a whole sub-continent. Priyanka Johnson is first-year Master of International Affairs student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on March 31st, 2014

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