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.