Women in brightly colored and patterned salvar kameez with dupattas draped around their heads bustled across the streets clutching bags of vegetables. An elderly lady walked slowly accompanied by a walking stick, but incredibly did not trip over her pink sari, the long strip of cloth that covered her body. Men with long beards and turbans stood outside stores beckoning pedestrians to step into their shops. Every single person I could see from my point was Indian, Pakistani, or Bengali – or as we affectionately call ourselves, desi. For the first time, I, despite the purple hjiab that covered my hair and long flowered shirt that reached my knees, did not stand out in the crowd – no one gave me a second glance.
â–º honorable mention 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
At first, I couldn’t comprehend the fact that for once, I actually wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb in the crowd. As I started to tell my mom this in Urdu, the language that we speak at home, she told me to speak quietly, as people were listening. Everyone was listening…. that meant that they could understand me. Wait…what? Then I understood… all the people milling around me also spoke Urdu. I couldn’t speak loudly about personal matters with my mom or make snide comments like I could at home, where people had no idea what I was actually saying. In fact, as I listened more closely, no one was speaking English!
As I got over my initial surprise and pleasure at the sight of such diverse people, I began to stroll along the streets. The men standing in front of their stores loudly called to me in Urdu to enter their shops, recognizing me as a Pakistani. The signs in front of the stores were as unique and unusual as the people that were in them. Besides the fact that their names were extremely exotic, they were translated in Hindi and Urdu as well. The window display at Shalimar Sweets held brown gulab jamoons, a round sugary desert; orange jalebis, shaped like twisted funnel cakes; and yellow ladoos, a staple at any Indian wedding. The saris in Neena Sari Palace were absolutely stunning – saris in all the colors of the rainbow and every shade in between, adorned with hand painted patterns. Leaving the sari store, I heard music – loud, booming music in Hindi. When I walked into Raaga Super Store, I saw that the walls of the tiny store were plastered with posters of actors; not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie though, because no one cares about them in this town – it is the faces of Shahrukh Khan and Karina Kapoor that adorn these walls.
While at first sight it might seem that I went to India or Pakistan, that guess is way off. Jackson Heights, New York – affectionately called Little India – is where all desis flock to when they feel homesick. From the people themselves, whom you can hear yelling excitedly in Urdu or Bengali to the foods, which are rich and spicy, Jackson Heights gives a delicious taste of South Asia.
My day at Jackson Heights revitalized my roots and nourished them. Without leaving the country, I was able to once again experience where my parents come from. Although I went back home to curious glances at my Muslim attire and the barrage of questions at my “unusual” ways, I had with me, and will always have with me, the memory of the day that I blended into a crowd in America.
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