“You belong here!” a young Latina staff at our local grocery store in Jackson Heights affirmed to my husband and me. She was responding to an older White shopper yelling at us to “go back home.”
I was a teenager before I set a foot outside the valley where I was born, where my parents and their parents’ parents traced their roots. I had experience navigating the real and imagined boundaries of my many Kathmandus, demarcated along the fault lines of castes, classes, and cultures, but I was rooted geographically.
Gradually, I started crossing state-sanctioned borders, starting with the neighboring South Asian countries — first India, then Pakistan and Bangladesh. Over time, I traversed wide swaths of the globe. I now have the luxury to freely, or with relative ease, cross borders erected by most nation states. I have the right documents, sufficient resources, and limited family obligations that allow me to be a global citizen.
In my constant state of flux, I am at home everywhere and yet nowhere. The closest simulacrum of home I have is Jackson Heights with its cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds. It is the place I have called home the longest as an adult. The neighborhood is where, for generations, new immigrants have landed with their suitcases smelling of homes left behind, and increasingly young families have arrived with their strollers from lands not as far away.
Jackson Heights is the only place in the country, or maybe the world, where a Korean woman on her way to work buys tamales from a Mexican mom, and a Nepali man eats biryani inside a Bangladeshi grocery store at one in the morning. A storyteller of Fina lineage shares stage with a Punjabi DJ at Diversity Plaza, the reclaimed communal space, where groups take turns putting up performances, press conferences, and protest rallies. Summer starts out every year with the second biggest pride celebration of New York City, not yet coopted by corporations, where Muslim mamas and Chinese grandmas, with their children and grandchildren in tow, watch gorgeous Latina drag queens perform. Walking down the streets, you can hear some subset of the 167 tongues spoken here making it the most linguistically diverse zip code in the country, and perhaps in the world.
I arrived at this immigrant hub, on a temporary visa, along with the newer South Asians — Bengalis and Nepalis — and the Tibetans who defy neat geographic categories. Before I knew it, my roots grew deeper than anywhere else. While I continue to travel and live in cities across continents, nowhere else in the world can I just walk over to my sister-friend and demand to be fed and entertained or walk home after dinner-turned-adda moving seamlessly between highbrow arts and college crushes. Nowhere else do the grocery store staff recognize me, the cafe owner gives complimentary coffee, and the hairdresser remembers our year-old conversations, all within blocks from my home. Home being a one-bedroom apartment crammed with books waiting to be read or hoping to be re-read, and mementos of our friendships and our travels.
Jackson Heights is also my political home base where I built my organizing muscle. From the neighborhood, I learned to navigate the city, starting with slow unsteady steps. I learned to decipher the delicate dance between powerful electeds and even more powerful king makers. I cut my teeth into campaigns to get counted and heard, in Census and during elections, and in making laws and policies, eventually transcending the city boundaries to reach Albany and Washington, DC.
Every so often, I contemplate moving away from Jackson Heights. I think about living somewhere more affordable, somewhere near nature, somewhere closer to biological family. But no matter how hard I try or how long I stay away, it has been impossible to uproot myself. The chaos of Jackson Heights welcomes me home with wide open arms each and every time, whether I am coming back on a plane across the seas or a subway ride across the river. Jackson Heights is the only place I have felt at home since leaving the city I grew up in, maybe even more than the home where I grew up. Days, sometimes weeks, pass by before I leave this self-contained piece of heaven.
It is love, pure and simple. No other words can describe what I feel for Jackson Heights. However, my love is not just a naive appreciation of a relative newcomer. I am well aware that this mecca of food and culture that people across the city now come in droves to sample is fueled by exploitation and broken dreams.
The cheap food enjoyed on food cart tours and at momo crawls are often subsidized by the poor new immigrants working long hours. The middle-of-the-night biryani means a mother gets off work at 3am, having to wake up a few hours later to get her child ready for school. The two dollar tacos means fifteen dollars an hour is often just an aspiration for those making and selling them. Jackson Heights is also where well-heeled immigrants take advantage of their less privileged neighbors, often invoking the nostalgia of shared languages/heritages/passports, where key money breaks bank accounts, and unscrupulous employment agencies send desperate immigrant workers to dubious job sites.
Of course the problems in Jackson Heights were not brought by the immigrants; its origin story is rooted in racism. When the neighborhood, with its exclusive garden apartments, was established by a corporation a century ago, it was a middle class White enclave that actively excluded everyone else. While the neighborhood has diversified significantly in the past decades, and Jackson Heights is now part of the most diverse county in the country, many in the “historic” parts still try to cling to the glory days of the past.
Over time, I learned to live with the contradictions; celebrate the good, honor the resilience of my neighbors, and also seek to change it in ways I can, working alongside the newcomers who are putting down roots and claiming their space.
No matter how much I love Jackson Heights or how much I want to claim it as my own, I am constantly reminded that I am but an interloper — on my morning jogs or late night grocery runs. Rude comments, eye rolls, compliments about my “good” English, and sometimes the outright, “Go back where you came from” are also part of living in Jackson Heights. Of course, it is not unique to Jackson Heights; being questioned about my belonging is the reality of navigating the world in a dark skin almost everywhere I go, including my own hometown with generations-deep memories.
With repeated exposure, the anger, the frustration, and the pain have lost much of their power. Jackson Heights is where I finally learned to feel comfortable, even proud, in my own skin. I have learned to question racist systems and intervene against microaggressions against others. It is also where neighbors have come to my support when I was on the receiving end of racist rants.
Good and bad, it is a place that has shaped me, and a place I have helped shape as well. One of my proudest moments of living here was being included in the Feminist Subway Map of New York City along with many of my sheroes — my own Jackson Heights stop. For me, it was the best proof that I belong to the only place that can anchor my unmoored being. Life’s demands — caring for aging parents, dwindling funds or career opportunities — may still force me to move, but my heart will forever remain in Jackson Heights.