Signs were written in Chinese, with shops for acupuncture and a glass storefront for a kung fu studio. Street stalls sold dumplings, rotisserie duck, and jackfruit. Off one of the wide and crowded main streets, a narrow passageway wound past tiny restaurants where people slurped soups and dabbed at food with chopsticks.
Historically, Flushing, Queens, was known in part for its tree nurseries and seed farms. Streets are named for trees like beech and ash, and near one park you’ll find the first weeping beech tree in the U.S. Heavy branches hang drunkenly down to the ground, blotting out the trunk in its entirety. Some say it is the parent of every weeping beech tree in the country. It came from Belgium in 1847, and when it was declared dead in 1998, the New York City parks commissioner held a funeral for it.
Relatively few people today, though, think of Flushing for its horticulture. Instead, it’s known largely as an Asian community. I had come not in search of duck or dumplings but to find the Hindu temple that was said to serve the best dosas in the city.
I had been back in Queens for about two weeks. The idea had been to relocate after my travels, most likely to the Washington, D.C., area, where my family lived. But after six months of job searching, I had just one interview—“I think we have a generous vacation policy—it’s two weeks,” the interviewer boasted in our first meeting—and a couple of freelance gigs that paid nowhere near a living wage.
When a temporary job opened up at my old employer, I took it, and to my surprise, I was excited to come back—to practice the yoga I loved but was rarely offered in the places I traveled, to visit art galleries, and to be immersed in the loose energy of New York City, a place I could wander without much thought. There was always something new to discover in New York, but after living there for more than 18 years before, I understood it better than anywhere.
I rented a room in the Queens apartment of a friend who was traveling for the summer. She had decorated the space with her own artwork as well as items she had collected around the world. Nepalese prayer flags hung over my bed, and the living and bathroom areas held Buddhist prayers and statues.
I used what free time I had to explore some of the neighborhoods in Queens, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse areas in the world. It’s estimated that more than 160 languages are spoken in the borough—one of five that make up New York City—including some that are no longer common in their native countries.
One night after work I went to the airy Queens Museum to hear an Egyptian band and watch a documentary about Sudan. Down the street from my apartment was a a tiny Turkish grocery store with one-lane aisles lined with barrels of plump olives. I met a friend for Indian food in Jackson Heights on a Sunday afternoon, later snacking on Tibetan dumplings as I explored the area’s streets and sari shops.
All of it was in areas off the 7 train—dubbed by some the “international express” for running along some of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City. Flushing is the last stop on the 7 train in Queens, and after checking out that dead but still impressive beech tree, I headed to the Ganesh Temple. It dominates roughly a third of a block with an iron gate and an ornately carved granite exterior.
I waited in line to wash my feet while a man next to me smashed coconuts on the marble outdoor sinks. Inside the temple small statues of devatas sat along the perimeter of the room for worship. On a plaque next to Sri Agastyar were these words: “Salutations to that Guru, who…made me to realize Him, whose form is universe, pervading in all that are movable and immovable.” Outside a side door, the smell of incense lingered in a courtyard. Empty chairs had been filled with people chanting earlier in the day.
The canteen was born in 1993 primarily to prepare food for offerings. Its South Indian flavors soon became popular enough among visitors that it expanded to its current home in the community center.
The large basement space was brightly lit. As I arrived, customers sat on folding chairs at long, rectangular tables, and a line to order food curved from a counter near the kitchen. A small shop just off the canteen offered music and books for sale.
That evening, the shop was also selling jasmine flowers. “Fresh jasmine for sale at the gift shop. Step right up,” a man near the kitchen periodically called into a microphone. “Step right up.”
I added myself to the line, puzzling over the lengthy list of dosas written on a white board and various containers on the counter. The styrofoam boxes and cups held things like yogurt rice, lentils, and desserts, a man from New Jersey told me. He and his friend were making their monthly visit to the temple, and they helped me sort through which dosa to try.
I settled on the butter masala dosa. It arrived on a plastic tray a few minutes later with sides of sambar and chutney. Some of the dosas were served like a tent with the filling in a bowl on the side. This one was rolled, and the paper-like wrapping made of lentils and rice had a large pat of butter melting on top of it. Inside was a flavorful mixture of potatoes and spices including mustard seeds and turmeric.
It was dark out as I walked back to the train. I took a wrong turn, passing by the Free Synagogue of Flushing, founded in 1917. I wandered past those food stalls selling duck and dumplings, found the passageway leading to those tiny restaurants, and eyed the jackfruit piled on the outdoor fruit stands.
It was a Saturday night in the summer, and the streets were full of people, some maybe headed home and others out to bars, clubs and restaurants. I was back in New York City, the place I understood the best, experiencing one of its best features: the ability to get lost in one of its pockets and discover it like you had traveled someplace brand new.