My Own Private America

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American flag

 As the Trump Administration redefines what America is and whom it belongs to, I re-share my America and what it means to me. 

Celebrating the Stars and the Stripes

(Back in 2010, Joel Stein wrote about ‘My Own Private India’ in TIME Magazine and created a bit of a storm Time Article- Racism or Storm in a Chai Cup?   I thought maybe an Indian immigrant should write about ‘My Own Private America’ – and how different it seems to be from the space inhabited by Stein. Six years have passed and my sentiments remain the same. )

I came to the US in the 80’s, as an immigrant via India, Hong Kong and Africa, and landed in Astoria, a gritty Greek neighborhood in Queens. As night fell, the cabbie dropped us outside a line of tired, weathered three-family houses where my cousin lived in a rented apartment. Dogs barked, garbage cans clanged and a lot of working class men sat with their beer bottles on the stoop. My heart sank – was this New York, it seemed so different from the flashy, glossy metropolis I had seen in Hollywood movies!

Next morning the sun was shining, people were rushing to work, kids to school and I fell in love with the prosaic neighborhood with its heart of gold. As an old Pakistani watchman told me, ‘Yeh bahut hi pyara elaka hai’ (it’s a very lovable neighborhood). Within a few months, the Greek landlady, who hardly spoke any English,  had overfed me on dolmas, which I loved; another Greek widow had become a confidant; an Irish Catholic single mom befriended me and I had become a part of the PTA at the elementary school. The Chinese manager at a discount store in the strip of  friendly, utilitarian stores was always wising us up on everything American, and we were also gradually finding our own lost Indian community – all those who hadn’t migrated to Edison.

 

Fourth of July

rharrison via Compfight cc

 

One Street, Every House of Worship

I loved the fact that a street in nearby Flushing had practically every house of worship from Hindu to Buddhist to Islamic to Christian, and that we could talk Hindi or our smattering of Cantonese, French and almost non-existent Spanish to complete strangers.  In the city,  the iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral became a must stop for me – just to sit there and watch the candles flickering and the endless streams of  worshipers coming  in, brought a sense of peace, the presence of a higher power.

Other things touched me about America – the sense of caring for others. Coming from India and Africa, I had never seen the disabled treated so well – the idea that you should give up your seat for someone weaker than you sounds so common-sense yet is so little practiced in many other parts of the world. The parking for the handicapped, the many services for those who didn’t have a level playing field – the whole sense of fairness appealed to me.

 

 

America at its Core

Over the years, in spite of  the occasional slip-ups and the setbacks, this is the America which has stayed with me, the one I’ve grown to love. This is the America I know is at the core – and that is all that matters. It’s an inclusive America and at heart it does have gold. People are evolving toward it – you see it in the increased openness, intermarriages, friendships and the solidarity of the young, in the sense of justice, of the rule of law. Sure racism still exists but there are so many more voices raised whenever it raises its ugly head.

I went back to my old neighborhood of Astoria recently and it is just as hardy as ever. Change has come to it in different faces, different races but the old-timers are still there, and still as accepting. Manhattan-style condominiums are springing up but the sturdy old no-nonsense, no-frills houses are still there, with their neatly tended little front lawns, some with an overhead trellis of grape leaves. Italian bakeries, halal shops, Chinese takeouts, Greek cafes, Indian grocery stores and Thai restaurants all ensure some heavenly eating, and windows into different lives – and they are all thriving side by side.  As always, it’s open house in Astoria, no matter who you are.

The part which never fails to amaze me is that when I take the N subway from Manhattan to Astoria – glancing at my fellow passengers I see a virtual United Nations – Latinos, Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, whites all wedged together, sitting side by side on the Great American Journey. If Lady Liberty was to see them, she would definitely shed a tear – because this is exactly what America is all about. And on the Fourth of July, with the firecrackers still ringing in our ears – we can say amen to that.

America’s greatest treasure, her hidden strength is We, the People.

Related Article:
Time Article- Racism or Storm in a Chai Cup?

We each have our own private America, memories of what the country is really about.  What’s yours?

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. Twitter@lavinamelwani & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

24 Comments

  1. Divya Swami Atri on

    (Via Facebook)

    Isn’t this what we all like about living in America? Your sentiments echo those of many of us. Great write-up!

  2. Lavina Melwani on

    Thanks, Divya. I know I wasn’t saying anything new but was trying to show that there is a more welcoming, more open America than the one Stein seems to inhabit.

  3. (Via Facebook)
    Just like Lavina’s neighborhhood, NJ is a cool amalgamation of different cultures. My town Cranbury celebrates Chinese new year with the same great enthusiasm as our Diwali, while the American festivals have become a part of our life and are celebrated with the same zeal and excitement as any American household.
    What is interesting is that my neighbors look forward to eating mithais and help light diyas on Diwali and we look forward to eating baklavas and cakes on Christmas. Kids in both house are eager to open gifts placed under the Christmas tree.
    Life is good when you share it.

  4. Lavina Melwani on

    Mini, I had not even heard of Cranbury, so it’s nice to learn something new. I’ve shared your comments on Lassi as I’d like more people to hear these stories.

  5. Lovely expose on Greek hospitality in Astoria. As you have said you inhabit a space different from Joel Stein’s. Well, it’s really the truth. A friend of mine of Taiwanese Canadian origin lived in Greek-Astoria for a very long time and was compelled to move away. Her “Chineseness,” lookswise and all, wasn’t appreciated too much by the local Greeks, is the max I can say. You can infer the rest. So just like you inhabited a space different from Stein’s, so she inhabited a space different from yours. And so goes the world–each of us live in differentiated mental geographies. But what’s disturbing is that there is afoot a mob mentality where certain people, when they don’t like what certain others feel or like, take to jumping on difference like a hound.

    p.s. Greeks are a bit known for harboring anti-black sentiments. Traditionally they tend to align themselves with the Caucasian space is my experience. Also, they are pretty conservative when it comes to sexual minorities in their midst. Don’t be going Greek if you’re gay is what I say.

  6. Lavina Melwani on

    Sharmila, you’re right – each one of us has different experiences and can’t speak for others. I don’t know that much about Greeks, just the people I met and who were kind to us. Astoria even in those days had a mix of different ethnicities and we found it easy to settle in. As for prejudices, I don’t think any one community has a monopoly on that.

  7. Alakananda Mookerjee on

    Sharmila: Let me take on the “gay” bit.

    You say: “Don’t be going Greek if you’re gay.”

    British classicist James Davidson’s book “The Greeks and Greek Love” says the converse. In fact, there were various social conventions surrounding male same-sex relationships, even within the geographically small area of ancient Greece.

  8. Lavina Melwani on

    Alakananda, I agree with you – the Greek myths are full of stories of same sex relationships but just as Indian immigrants tend to be more conservative than the Indians living in India, ‘frozen in time’ as it were, the Greeks here may be more conservative than their counterparts back home.

    I’ve really been taken by one point made by Sharmila, though. ‘So just like you inhabited a space different from Stein’s, so she inhabited a space different from yours. And so goes the world – each of us live in differentiated mental geographies.’ I think I will bear that in mind the next time I rush to judgment.

  9. Lavina Melwani on

    Ridhi, thank you!I’m curious about your private America. Are you a long time resident or a new arrival – and where do you stand on this debate?

  10. Beautifully written. I haven’t stayed in the US for longer than a month, but during my brief stay I was struck by the heterogeneity of faces I saw all around me on the subway, in the streets, at my boyfriend’s campus. Really enjoyed your post. :)

  11. Lovely writeup! I too appreciate the all-inclusive nature of most Americans and my family and I have thrived in forming wonderful relationships with people from different races and cultures.

  12. Lavina Melwani on

    Hello Ami, so glad you enjoyed it and you should do a longer trip next time. New York really grows on you and you see the quirks and the lovability of the people around you. Not to say there are no difficult people!

  13. Lavina Melwani on

    Roshni, have to agree with you totally on this – the longer you live here the more you see the commonality of all people, the humanity.

  14. Beautiful article that highlights the essence of our country. The melting pot has changed to a salad bowl and people are happy to keep their identity while being American. The anecdotal rhetoric shall not and hopefully will not prevail. What makes this country great are the people.