When I tell people I’m from New York and they ask me whereabouts, I say, “Queens and Long Island.” I had spent six years in each locale before heading off to college out of state, so it somehow seemed important to acknowledge both places as where I’m from. But lately, I’ve come to embrace my Queens years as more integral to my identity.
Long Island was the safe, boring suburb that I was always trying to escape, the backdrop for my adolescent sense of alienation and fish-out-of-waterness. Queens, on the other hand, was my mostly happy childhood in the United States. And I attribute that happiness, in part, to having grown up in an immigrant hotspot. Having arrived in Flushing, Queens at age 6, I experienced America as always already multi-racial and multi-cultural. On Main Street, my father’s liquor store was flanked by an Italian restaurant, a Hungarian butcher, a tiny card and candy shop owned by a Polish couple, and on one corner, a Japanese chain restaurant. Over the years, these were replaced by Korean and Chinese businesses and soon, whole streets were covered in Korean or Chinese language signs. Squint and you could imagine yourself in another country. Later, long after we’d moved to the suburbs, Latin American businesses appeared – a Colombian bakery across the street sold flattened donut shaped cheesy pastries—along with places selling Halal meats.
My public elementary school was full of white teachers whose names suggested their German, Anglo, and Jewish origins: Principal Gruber, Mrs. Klein, Mrs. Ingalls, Mrs. Berger, Mrs. Scharf, Mrs. Drezner, Mrs. Albert, Mr. Alexander, Mrs. Herschel. I remember them as kind, patient, and caring. In addition to classmates with Irish, Italian, Hispanic, and Greek last names, my classes were full of other more recent immigrant children from South Asia, China, and Korea. There were also several Black classmates in my classes every year. It was a fairly integrated experience, with resources for ESL support and special math enrichment and an annual dance festival, with each grade performing a specific dance we’d learned for all the other grades, all of us gathered on the large, fenced-in blacktop outside the school.
This isn’t to say all was harmonious and kumbayah. In the neighborhood, I heard “chink” more than once and “Chinese or Japanese?” was a question I came to resent. I might have gotten into a fight or two and told some white kids to “fuck off.” Whenever asked where he was from, my father, with his wavy black hair and complexion slightly darker than your average Korean, would say he was Native American to preempt any “go back” comments and most people took him at his word (apologies to indigenous people). There was crime (my father was held up at gun point; my mother mugged in a parking lot), homelessness, and all sorts of racial tensions I was unaware of.
But my point is, growing up there in the mid-70’s, my immigrant status didn’t make me stand out any more than all the other immigrants around me. Even if I don’t remember ever discussing these things with my school mates, we were comfortable code switching between school and home; we were used to translating for our parents; even as my Asian classmates and I competed to win spelling bees and get top scores, I think we felt a camaraderie, because we were operating under similar expectations. Racial and ethnic diversity was the norm; at the same time, I saw versions of myself around me. School was a comfortable, welcoming place where I thrived academically and socially.
Only later did I realize this was not every immigrant’s experience. Asian American friends who’d grown up in white majority towns and schools talked about a sense of isolation, and much more intense bullying or teasing and racism than I’d ever been subject to. Driving through my husband’s rural hometown in upstate New York, I’d wonder about those families who came to these far flung places to open the first Chinese restaurants. I was drawn to stories of South Korean adoptees raised in white families in white parts of the country where they were the only Asians around. I couldn’t imagine it. The taken-for-grantedness of the diversity in my childhood environment was perhaps not to be taken for granted after all.
As the rhetoric and policies of the country have become more virulently anti-immigrant and openly racist, I’ve wondered, what did such a childhood in Queens give me? I don’t think it’s just nostalgia to believe that growing up in Flushing, NY had something to do with my feeling that I belonged here in this vast, imperfect country, even when I felt my differences from the dominant culture. My parents were reluctant assimilationists. I’d heard about immigrant parents who spoke only English with their children so they could integrate more quickly. Mine insisted on speaking Korean at home. Except for weekly steak dinners, occasional tomato sauce and spaghetti, and turkey on Thanksgiving, my mother cooked Korean food. “You are a Korean first,” they’d say, as both admonishment and reminder whenever my brother and I argued that we were in America now. Thus rooted in one culture, I inevitably soaked up all the others around me, and learned to become comfortable in my hybridity.
It’s not lost on me that Trump is also from Queens, a part of Queens I’ve never been to. Needless to say, we learned very different lessons. My family moved out of Queens in 1981, but when Alexandria Ocasio Cortez won her congressional seat in an improbable and inspiring run, I felt connected to her and her Bronx roots. She was unapologetic and unashamed about who she was and spoke with an authenticity that voters connected to. If Trump is the figure who channels and capitalizes on white fear and resentment, AOC is the politician who reminds me of the scrappy kid who’s not afraid to take on the school yard bully, who is not going to let anybody tell her she doesn’t belong.
I wanted to claim Queens for myself, like AOC had claimed her New York and her seat at the table, because a small, busy corner of it made space for me all those decades ago. If there is any part of the myth of the American Dream that is worth trying to realize, it’s the idea of a thriving pluralism. My memory of those childhood years makes me want to believe it’s possible, even if the current war of values would suggest otherwise. I’m trying to figure out how to make the Queens that I am from.