Monday, October 02, 2006

Flushing, Queens

A few Thursdays ago I took the 7 train to Flushing to meet with Madhulika Khandelwal. I had invited Khandelwal, the director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College and author of Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City (Cornell, 2002), to come to give a talk to a group of public school teachers at one of the fall Teaching American History workshops that its my job to organize. In this talk, which isn’t happening until mid-October, Khandelwal will give a teacher-friendly primer on Asian American history, reflecting, as she goes, on the ways in which this history sheds light on the meanings and history of citizenship in the U.S. context. Its going to be a smash-up. Can’t wait. So but we needed to meet in advance of the workshop to work out various details—and she asked that we hold this pre-meeting in Queens, and so on Thursday I went. It had been over a decade since I’d been to Main Street in Flushing because it 14 years ago my maternal grandparents moved from Flushing to Fort Lee, New Jersey. Already deep into their seventies, they couldn’t hack the five floor walk-up anymore, and plus they wanted to live closer my Great Aunt Fina.

Going out to Flushing after 14 years of not-going gave me the familiar sort of alienated, unresolved, grandchild-of-Croatian-immigrants feeling that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. It’s a feeling I’m very interested in, it’s the feeling, in fact, that originally inspired me to start thinking about the question of how history feels. I’m still working my way towards being able to write comprehensively about that feeling; and going to Flushing brought a rush of ideas and memories back that I thought were interesting, given the fact that I was going to a meeting to talk about the history of post-1965 immigration to the neighborhood. Given that some of the people I love most in this world are South Asians who moved to Queens (and environs) post-65, right as my family was transitioning from immigrant to native-born types—and doing it in Queens (and environs).

Flushing, in specific, was a central geographical marker and identifier for me in the first 20 years of my life. It inhabited especially large portions of my imagination when I was a small child: it felt like it was a part of me that I had left behind before I was born, before I was moved to the suburbs, where, more often than not, I found myself playing Kick The Can with the neighborhood bullies, or something equally (un)enjoyable. Back then, the word “Flushing” bewitched me. No: “bewitched” is the wrong word. Really it just confused me, and some days this confusion was consuming. I’d sit in the back of my dad’s 1975 Ford Something and say the word over and over in my head. I just couldn’t figure it out. Flushing. Flushing. Flushing. That’s a verb!, I’d think. Not a neighborhood! Moreover, it was the sort of verb you definitely didn’t want to live inside of; it was the sort of verb you barely wanted to think about even when you were enacting it—better just to do it quickly and then get back to the dinner table or the math homework you were doodling on. Why, I wondered, would someone name a place after something unpleasant that happens after you’ve done your business in the bathroom? Why? And then, why did my relatives have to live there? I must have lost hours and hours pondering these questions. It felt like the idea of flushing a toilet soiled all of the neighborhood’s inhabitants—and, by extension, me.

Back then, I wasn’t knowledgeable in the ways of historical research, and we didn’t have Wikipedia. But even if we did, I don’t know that it would have occurred to me to look up the history of the place’s name there. The question itself was only ever half-formed, more a feeling than a thought, as most important things often were in my youth. But it turns out that the reason for the neighorhood’s name lies, as it always seems to in North America, with the history of empire, and displacement, and mispronunciation. In 1645, the Dutch West India Company pushed the area’s existing inhabitants—the Algoquins—aside, renaming the place Vlissingen, after a spot in the southwestern Netherlands. When the English settlers arrived, sometime later, they in turn pushed the Dutch out, and found themselves unable to pronounce the place’s name correctly. “Vlissingen” thus became “Flushing.” This, of course, was before indoor plumbing was invented.

I don’t remember what Flushing was like in my early life, although I’ve heard it said that even into the 1970s and early 80s, at least in the immediate few blocks around my grandparents’ apartment, you could do all your business entirely in the languages of Croatian and Italian, the only two languages that my grandparents spoke fluently. This has to be at least partly true, because until the day they died, neither of my grandparents spoke much English. But in the early 1990s, during their final years in the neighborhood, I remember that driving around we’d always comment on how many Korean signs and businesses were going up nearby.

So I went to my meeting with Madhulika feeling curious. How would it feel now to walk the same streets I hadn’t haunted since my early 20s? How exactly has the neighborhood changed? Madhulika’s work is actually in large part about Flushing and the transformation that it underwent since the 1970s, when large numbers of South Asian immigrants began inhabiting it. But Flushing is now, I think, predominantly neither Korean nor South Asian—its largely Chinese. You can get Chinese produce on every other block and there’s a dedicated group of Falun Gong practioners that has set up a semi-permanent protest table outside the library. And its constantly in flux. The Punjabi-Gujarati restaurant Madhulika had intended to take me to, on Main Street, just past Kissena Boulevard, had just been converted into a nail salon. (But no problem; there was an equally excellent Punjabi-Gujarati establishment two doors down!)

Madhulika has a lot of very interesting things to say about these changes, and in two weeks she’ll be giving a talk about them—and about the history of South Asians in New York, and just what their experiences suggests about the limitations and meanings of citizenship in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries—to a group of NYC public school elementary teachers. After which I intend to post, here, highlights from the talk and the Q & A. And therein, perhaps I will also take up the very important questions of: Why Should NYC Public School Elementary Teachers Be Teaching about South Asians in New York City? There is, after all, the all-important reading test coming up soon! And will this information be on the fifth grade social studies test? And aren’t grade school children too young to be able to understand the complexities involved here?

These are the questions that have to be addressed when one plans a talk for NYC elementary teachers on almost any historical subject other than a round of The Erie Canal Song. Indeed, The Erie Canal Song holds a shockingly large place in NYC official elementary social studies curriculum. Why? No one has yet been able to tell me. Its a fun song, for sure. But its not a social studies curriculum.

Anyhow, for the moment, I’m just going to sit here for a bit, thinking about the sweep of time, and about the way that Flushing seems to be the epicenter of so many important pieces of 20th century US history and my own personal American story. I’ll let you know when I figure something out.


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