I first noticed them at Jay Street-MetroTech station in Brooklyn. Small, gray icicle-shaped formations dangling from the ceiling—New York City’s subway stalactites. A minor geological formation of crud may seem like a small thing, perhaps, but it was enough to inspire a pang of regret about having moved here from Beijing. While New York’s underground seems to be decaying, Beijing’s subway lines and stations are expanding like multiplying cells, from just two lines a decade or so ago to over 283 miles of track by the time I left last April after six years of reporting there.
But for those and other moments of reverse culture shock, New York has one ever-present salve: food. Any time I’m looking at my China-based friends’ Instagram feed with longing, or wondering if I was wrong to choose New York over Beijing, I remember that maybe I don’t have to choose at all. China is right here in New York, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night. All you have to do is search it out.
And so I found myself in Flushing, Queens, on a drizzling Saturday not long ago, with a large group of people who had recently gone through a similar transition as me. All of us had lived in China, and visiting Flushing is in many ways like going home. Flushing is so perfectly, hilariously, deliciously China that even the most hardened China-hand, blindfolded and airdropped into the neighborhood, might not realize he was in America. The people are Chinese, the storefronts Chinese, the advertisements, buildings, smells—Chinese. Flushing is different than Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has a cluttered, movie-set vibe. Flushing does more than just look like China—it feels like it. Like all Chinese cities, Flushing is both new and worn, shining and faded. Even Chinglish, that timeless curiosity, has found its way to the neighborhood: a few blocks from the subway station, for example, at New World Mall, visitors can treat themselves to a “Digital Perm” at Merry and Lancy’s Hair Salon (although I recommend the “Magic Straight Perm”).
Flushing has long been a neighborhood of immigrants. Years ago, it was predominantly Jewish and Italian, but then came large populations from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and, in the 1980s, Mainland China. Flushing’s ethnic mix has not always lived together harmoniously; the rapid changes can be difficult even for more established immigrants. In 2011, Peter Koo, a Chinese-American who was born in Shanghai and is now a city council member who is known by some as the “Mayor of Flushing,” proposed a measure that would require all storefront signs to be at least 60 percent English, arguing that Chinese signage threatened to alienate non-Asian customers and residents.
But if you love Chinese cuisine—no matter your own background—Flushing is close to paradise, with a splendor of restaurants specializing in dumplings and noodles, hot pot and roast duck, bubble tea and dim sum, Sichuan and Shaanxi. It has extravagant banquet halls and dingy hole-in-the-walls (just like in China, your best bet is to always go with the hole-in-the-walls). On that damp weekend in January, my friends and I had gathered in New World Mall’s crowded, dimly lit food court, where we dove into ample bowls of malaxiangguo—dry hot pot—a fiery scramble of dried peppers, beef, chicken, tofu, mushrooms, and more.
When I moved to New York last May, it didn’t take long before I realized how much I took for granted the joys of eating in China. Food is treated differently over there. People indulge, and meals, even at the grimiest shack of a restaurant in a dusty second-tier Chinese city, are events—the end result of going from a country of scarcity to one of plenty. Patrons order much more than they can eat, simply because they can, and piles of food are often leftover. People stay at the table for hours after meals, smoking, chatting, nibbling, and drinking (and smoking some more). Large lazy-Susan tables define most Chinese restaurants, where a dozen or more guests share dishes. Dinner is almost always a collective affair.
FOR THE FULL FLUSHING EXPERIENCE, YOU NEED TO GO WITH FRIENDS. PREFERABLY A LOT OF THEM.
That’s why for the full Flushing experience, you need to go with friends. Preferably a lot of them. It wasn’t the first time the group I was with—give or take a few members—had met to feast on Chinese food. Call us the Chinese Supper Club (unofficial name, coined by me, right now). Our members come from California, Tennessee, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere; several are American-born Chinese. Our lowest common denominator is that we are all ex-expats, telling and retelling stories of our wild days in China, throwing out our Chinese language skills to the wait staff—much to their amusement. Whatever our reasons were for going to China, the country helped shape who we are today. And though we live in New York now, China is very much a part of us. We have a personal relationship with China, and food, we’ve discovered, is one of the best ways to keep it strong.
Not that I always loved Chinese food. Like many who were raised in the West, I grew up in a place where the Chinese restaurant was the worst place in town—serving bastardized versions of Chinese dishes tweaked for the North American palate, cooked by people who aren’t even Chinese. I met real Chinese food, with its wealth of diversity, for the first once I had moved there,: the spicy richness of Sichuan and Yunnan fare; thick Xian hand-pulled noodles; cumin-marinated Xinjiang lamb skewers; plump Dongbei dumplings; Beijing duck, crispy and fatty, wrapped in a thin pancake with spring onions, cucumber, and hoisin sauce. All of this was available within a few blocks of my Beijing apartment. Several times a week I would gather with friends for big, boozy dinners. Everybody was invited; the restaurants were cheap (though getting more expensive), the food delicious, and the companionship comforting to young expats in a foreign land.