One of my favorite authors, John Green, posts YouTube videos called “thoughts from places” every so often, in which he shares brief video clips of places like Amsterdam, Chicago, or Indianapolis, and narrates them with the most witty and poignant commentary. Here’s an example. I don’t think I can compete with his word skills, but I do have some thoughts from a place.
That place being Flushing, Queens. This past Sunday, Sean and I, along with two of his co-workers (one male and one female) and their significant others, embarked on a journey to the Near Far East. This was very exciting for me, as I tend to stay in Manhattan, with the occasional venture into Brooklyn and one sketchy detour to an authentic Mexican restaurant in the Bronx.
So we took the 7 train from Grand Central all the way to the end of the line — to the Main Street, Flushing stop. I’d yet to reach the end of a subway line, and this was an experience in and of itself. To reach the outskirts of what some would very well refer to as the “center of the _____ world” (insert “fashion,” “financial,” “publishing,” or other prominent New York City industry here).
Once we got out of the Grand Central tunnel, we were above ground for most of our nearly hour-long train ride. That was when I realized that even with its intimidating verticality, eternal bustle, and ceaseless noise, Manhattan is just a small island. New York City is HUGE. We zoomed along past the upper levels of brick buildings, colorfully graffitied, finally arriving at our destination. After a bunch of above-ground stations, the Main Street stop is back underground. You climb up the familiar gritty stairs of the MTA system, and you are in Asia.
Or something like it.
Everyone is dark-haired and speaking in a cacophony of foreign dialects. Some signs are in English, but not all. There’s a bubble tea place and a ramen place on practically every corner. I’d forgotten how humbling it is to be a complete minority.
A long, long time ago, I spent part of my first grade year living in Iwakuni, Japan, where my dad was stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps. My memories mainly consist of that which is most easily etched onto the mind of a 6-year-old: strawberry candies wrapped in playful Hello Kitty packaging; the enchantingly realistic plastic models of food in place of menu restaurants; the gilded patterns of origami paper, waiting to transform into any number of creatures. But one does not easily forget what it is like to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned in a sea of others.
It’s a good thing to experience, once in a while, I think — for those of us who are always in the overwhelming majority. It’s good to feel apart, alienated even, reminded of the fact that there are many worlds besides your own little world.
Once we started walking away from Main Street toward our final destination — Picnic Garden, a Korean barbecue buffet restaurant — it began to feel even less like New York City, and even more like a typical middle-class suburban neighborhood. There were houses and driveways (driveways!) and little patches of grassy yards with trees.
Picnic Garden was its own adventure. Basically, you pile plates with raw, marinated meat (there is also a selection of cooked rice and stir-fried veggies), and barbecue it yourself on a little grill built into a large table. You must use chopsticks — Picnic Garden doesn’t have anything else — and you must remember to use on pair of “cooking chopsticks” and one pair of “eating chopsticks.” Don’t get them confused. (Is there really any wonder why this place has a C sanitation rating? It’s like asking people to give themselves food poisoning.)
Once you get over the fact that there are a lot of bloodied plates sitting around you as well as a selection of squid and chicken gizzards, carefully picked out by a Vietnamese member of our group (and long-time resident of Flushing), it’s actually quite heavenly. The meat is so tender and flavorful! I personally recommend the short ribs. Mmmm.
Also, just for the record, they do come around and change out your grill several times, help cut up particularly large flanks of meat, and clear plates quickly. It’s not totally self-service.
Because you pay a flat-price for all-you-can-eat, the meal lasted us nearly three hours. I don’t think I ate as much as I thought I would or the others did because I can only eat so much meat. I ended up switching to chilled orange slices pretty early in the game. But when we left, I was very aware of the fact that my clothes and my hair smelt unmistakably of Korean barbecue.
I mean, I ate a lot more than I usually do, but you should have seen some of the Asian families dining around us. Impressive!
We made a pit stop on the way back to the subway at Quickly, a cheap bubble tea spot. Sean and I wanted to try two different flavors (I wanted coconut, and he wanted peach), but they have this deal where you can get the large tea for the same price as the medium — the only two sizes they offer, by the way. We knew there was NO WAY after eating all that Korean barbecue we could make it through a large tea, even if we shared it. The girl at the cash register seemed very confused by our refusal of their “free upgrade,” and kept pushing it on us. I looked around the restaurant and EVERYONE had a large. Those Asians, I tell you. Olympic-worthy appetites.
I got the medium, as did Sean. We noticed that we were the only orders that got announced in English and not Mandarin first. It’s because they knew. They knew the outsiders could not handle that much milky tea and tapioca pearls. (What are tapioca pearls by the way? Do I even want to know?)
After another long subway ride to Manhattan and an additional transfer to the uptown 6 train, we were back on the Upper East Side. With The Gap; our Fairway supermarket fully stocked with organic, kosher, all-natural and gluten-free goods; the uniformed doormen who spray the sidewalk free of cigarette butts and dead leaves. You know, all the stereotypical makings of all-American, streamlined, have-it-your-way New York City.
It was hard to believe Flushing, that place of more prominently Asian culture than even famed Chinatown, too, was part of this all-American city. Just a train ride away.
This, I think, is the glorious thing about New York. You can be home, or you can be in a whole new world in what feels like an instant, just by emerging from the depths of the subway system. It’s like a microcosm of the whole world: with rivers and beaches and woods and urban jungle, and high-rise condominiums, prewar brownstones, and suburban houses; grimy bars and majestic cathedrals and corporate multiplexes, and all the many types of people who drift between these various places.
I love that traveling by subway is not only efficient, it also adds an element of surprise to any journey. You descend into its stuffy and sometimes smelly depths, find your small person-sized place among the train’s crowd, feel the jostle of the train rumbling its way through the city’s underbelly. It stops, the door glides open, the crowds pour forth onto the station platform like a much-awaited exhalation of breath. And as if floating on that sigh of eagerness, you float dream-like up the steps and emerge into the sunlight again, blinking in your new surroundings. You never know what awaits you.
Thank you, Flushing, for reminding what it is to truly observe and wonder, explore and discover. I intend to keep on drifting.