Jackson Heights, Queens: A Teacher of Tolerance

When I was in college one of my mentors, Leslie Marmon Silko (Native-American author and teacher) told me that “Art will always transcend a border, but politics will not.” This was a very sage and unexpected response to my question, “Ms. Silko, should I choose to be a writer or a diplomat?”

When I think back to that brief conversation, I am stunned at its truth. Human beings connect over paintings, sculpture, music, film, theatre and one of my favorite art forms… food. I understand that not everyone agrees on what is proper to eat. Some eat meat; some do not. Some eat dairy; some do not. I also understand that food can bring people together, help resolve differences and teach tolerance.

This is superbly illustrated in New York City. Anyone new to this city will be amazed at the plethora of nationalities co-existing on 303.3 square miles. With a population density of 28,000 within each of those square miles, and a total population of  over eight million, how do we ever get along? Other than taking pride in another added identity as a New Yorker, food and art do play a part.

Let’s have a look at South Asia. India and Pakistan have been in conflict for some time. Bangladesh and Nepal work to keep their countries happy while acting as long-term peacemakers between China and India. A little history lesson will tell you that many of these issues were brought on by border conflicts either self-inflicted or the results of decolonization.

Adding art to this scenario is not making light of these challenges. On the contrary, it is a grand gesture of hope. For example, when the film Veer Zaara was made (a Pakistani-Indian love story) it was evident that art is transforming ideas in the region. But, what does New York City have to do with all of this?

If you happen to take the train from Manhattan into Jackson Heights, Queens, you will find a thriving and quite large South Asian community. Asians represent roughly 12% of the New York population. In Jackson Heights, the streets, shops and stores are filled with those from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan. Newspapers and magazines are in many South Asian languages. One of the most beautiful scripts is Urdu, a Pakistani language with its mixture of Arabic and Hindi. These scripts mix with colorful silk embroidery in shop windows.  Sweets and produce are everywhere. All of it mixes and mingles with the very urban setting to create quite an eclectic living painting.

I met my dear friend Rachel there to discover the area a bit more. The day was unbelievably hot. I went inside a local grocery store and was immediately in the most glorious atmosphere. Soon I was drinking a cold mango drink and throwing my curiosities deep into the stacks of spices. I was ecstatic to see bags of garam masala in whole spice form and not ground. I tried to determine the ingredients, but alas a small black pod stumped me. A gentleman in the store was delighted to teach me. Black cardamom.

Over the course of several hours, Rachel and I tasted curries, poured over books in Urdu, ate too many sweets from the bakeries and talked with ladies selling saris or working in salons. Men on the streets invited us to visit their stores full of beautiful gold jewelry. I wished for a bigger stomach to eat more and try more things. I wished for a bigger budget, so I could clothe myself in a few Saris.

Coming out of a Pakistani bookstore and immediately to its neighboring Indian sari shop, I realized what a treasure the area was. Full of people from South Asia and not just from one specific South Asian country, they had built a single community full of families and food. They were not divided into Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshi or Nepalese. The food in the restaurants and grocery stores was familiar to everyone, yet maintained its cultural roots. Somehow outside their own countries these community members had found a unifying spirit.

At the South Asian Family Restaurant , Rachel and I spent a long and glorious lunch, sharing as girlfriends do. The name had lured us in. It seemed to represent truthfully the spirit of the area—a large South Asian family—and we felt included.

I understand the oversimplification of the idea that art (which for me includes cuisine) can build peace and tolerance in a world of conflict. I understand that it would take a lot more than food to solve the dilemmas of South Asia and the uneasy history of the countries’ borders. But, I’m glad to see a representation of such a peaceful existence here in New York City. It’s a vision of what could be, even if it’s only on a very small scale. And moreover, the city is embedded with little gem-like communities full of culture and life. Usually, one subway ride can take you there. It’s a pity that in an economy such as this, we don’t take advantage of these little “cultural vacations.”

Leslie Marmon Silko’s words changed my life. I am a writer, not a diplomat, but maybe this city—this multicultural metropolis— acts as a diplomat by just existing. It illustrates a tolerance that many places on the globe still lack, and I’m proud to share it… in writing.

Elise McMullen a.k.a. The Galavant Girl

 

1 Comment

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