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A love letter to Queens from the before times

Last summer, during our trip out east, we stayed with friends in Jackson Heights, Queens, a jewel of a neighborhood. We got off the subway on a Thursday night and spilled out with the rest of the crowd onto “Diversity Plaza.” Aptly named for it was packed with every type of immigrant, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern. There were Tibetan monks in their robes casually eating momos from a food truck and a Latino man giving out brown-bagged meals to a long line of hungry folks from the back of his pick-up truck. No affiliations with an organization, just a good samaritan that saw a need and filled it. The plaza is teeming with vitality. Some stand with friends they happened to bump into, shifting from foot to foot, engaged in long exchanges. Others have the convenience of outdoor tables, slouched forward in rapt attention, sipping early evening espressos from paper cups. At Diversity Plaza, there are no doubts, no questions about belonging. There’s only comfort and awe if you’re new to it, that such a place exists. 

At one end of the plaza was a folksy old hippie, a white man with an acoustic guitar singing a “Mamas and Papas” song. With all due respect to his musicianship, the performance might be dismissed as trite in other parts of the jaded city, but here the hard-working folks eat it up. Too fatigued for cynicism, they only hear the music as it was originally intended. These are the same people who jettisoned Michael Jackson to #1 on the global charts, who adorn their shop walls with smooth chested David Hasselhoff posters. They see, they like, they savor. Simple. They haven’t read Pico Iyer. They don’t question the implications. As the man croons out “California Dreaming,” a few have gathered holding up their Android phones, earnestly capturing that which stirs their hearts. Like a condor in flight, a fiery red sunset, the old hippie captivates. His voice of crystallized honey sings a song in the language of this new land. But its as familiar to them as a children’s lullaby thanks to the ever so ubiquitous basic karaoke packages, aka gateways to the America. Back in their native lands, TOEFL certificates weren’t the only markers of achievements in the English language. There are also karaoke performances of the Mamas and Papas, Elvis, Sinatra, and for those overachievers, Whitney Houston [with honors]. 100% from the random score generator and cheers from their audience fueled their conviction of moving entire lives to an unknown land. Now, here they were in Diversity Plaza in the presence of a virtuoso. With the utmost reverence, they hold their cameras steady for the entire 2 1/2-minute duration of the song. For them, the miracle of technology is the video feature of their smartphones: FaceTiming relatives, scrolling through photos of the children, watching cinema on a 6-inch screen, documenting inspiration.

Afterwards, we walked home seven blocks in the balmy summer evening through tree lined streets of sturdy prewar buildings. A women with a large cart of other people’s laundry has trouble getting up a curb. We gave her a hand and she was grateful. We considered dinner from the variety of take out options. Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean fried chicken, and of course pizza, all authentically delicious. That night I lay in bed, the particular sounds of an urban neighborhood lulling me to sleep: a quick drizzle, tires through puddles, a few horns, not many, and the pervasive hum of window A/C units. I drifted off thinking of the plaza. Once it emptied out, those folks headed to their homes, maybe modest apartments with makeshift bedrooms added on to the living room to accommodate extended family. On the other side of those A/C units, some lie awake unable to sleep. The stress of bills, of aging parents, of their children losing touch with their culture weighing on their minds. They might pull out their phones to scroll through photo albums, always a reliable sleep aid. They come across the video of the man singing, “California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.” For 2 1/2 minutes they listen and are reminded of why they are here, of why they left everything behind to take a shot in America.- Ruth Chon Saiki

Ruth Chon Saiki is a New York City transplant living in San Gabriel, Calif., with her husband and two children. She’s editing “The Glades Project,” a documentary about the middle gender showgirls of 1960s and 1970s Hawai’i.