Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why My Neighborhood Is the Coolest

According to the U.S. Census, Queens is probably the most diverse county in the U.S. With nearly half of its population born overseas, it comes a close second to Miami-Dade in the percentage of foreign-born residents, but Miami-Dade is predominantly Latin and Cuban whilst the population in Queens comes from more than 100 nations. Some populations concentrate in certain neighborhoods: Flushing, for instance, is predominantly Asian. Other neighborhoods like Astoria, where I live, and Jackson Heights not far away, have residents from many countries and would probably have a good claim to be the most diverse neighborhoods in the world.

Today I went to my greengrocer. The produce is about half as cheap as the Korean convenience store just a couple of blocks away, and about a third as cheap as Manhattan. The place is owned by a Greek. Central Americans work the produce, and pretty young girls from many different nationalities work at the cashier. The Brazilian girl who flirts with every male between the ages of 12 and 80 wasn't there today, so I got in another line. Pretty soon I was at the head, and there was an elderly man next to me in traditional Arab garb. "Did you get this from inside or outside?" asked the girl at the cashier. He couldn't understand what she was asking. The Greek girl next to her intervened; they tried with sign language to explain what they were asking, but it wasn't getting through. "I do not understand," he said. Finally, they just laughed and charged him the lower price.

Then, the first girl asked: "are you Muslim?" The old man understood this. He answered that he was. This very European-looking girl placed a hand over her heart and said "I am Muslim."

The Arab man smiled. "Yarhamkom allah" he said. "Yarhamkom allah" she replied. For my benefit, he turned and managed to communicate that this was how a muslim greeted a muslim. It meant 'God Bless You'. "That is all the Arabic she knows" laughed the Greek girl. "I know, I know" said the other girl, as if knowing only this much Arabic were a grave personal shortcoming. The Arab man asked where she was from; it turns out that she was from Kosovo. And that is where I left them. I walked away with the makings for an excellent salad and a smile on my face.

We all get along in Astoria. We're all after the same very American goal: to make a little bit better lives for ourselves and our kin. We're new to America, but we are the soul of America. We are the future of America. I will never understand the people that are frightened by otherness. I find it exhilarating.

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