New York: For Changing Queens, Lessons in Talk of the Streets

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 28 13:58:24 UTC 2007

May 28, 2007
For Changing Queens, Lessons in Talk of the Streets


Something extraordinary happened to Maria Farren of Flushing, Queens, on a
recent trip to the grocery store. From the familiar background chatter of
people speaking Chinese, a syllable leapt out from nowhere. It was not
that she understood the word she didnt but the sound was familiar. That
was enough of a surprise that she paused in mid-aisle. Its just a din of
noise, Ms. Farren said, and all of a sudden you recognize something. So on
a rainy Wednesday evening, she was back in the basement room of the Queens
housing project where two dozen adults gather every week to learn
Mandarin. The free classes at the James A. Bland Houses draw a motley
assortment of students; the current session includes an 85-year-old
Holocaust survivor, a black woman who grew up in the housing project and
the practical-minded daughter of Hungarian immigrants.

They have in common these two attributes: They have lived in Flushing
since before it was Asian, and they have decided that the time has come to
adapt. Kind of like, If you cant beat em, join em, said Ms. Farren, whose
Italian-American relatives cannot fathom why she hasnt left for New
Jersey. Pitched battles have been fought over language in Flushing, whose
white ethnic population has receded as Korean and Chinese immigrants have
arrived. In the late 1980s, when City Councilwoman Julia Harrison proposed
a bill requiring businesses to post signs in English, a public divide
seemed to open: On one side were the waves of Asian newcomers; on the
other, longtime residents who felt displaced and alienated.

But Man-Li Kuo Lins weekly Mandarin class arranged by Ms. Harrisons
successor, Councilman John C. Liu provides a different view of Flushing.
Ms. Lins students filter in after finishing a days work as paramedics or
elementary school teachers. They set up chairs under pipes labeled hot
kitchen/bath and chilled water supply, which are periodically traversed by
mice. Some eat supper discreetly out of paper bags. Then they stumble,
with boisterous good humor, over the basics of Mandarin grammar. In the
center of the front row, every Wednesday, sits an old man with a freckled
scalp and a frizz of white hair. This is Frank Sygal, 85, a retired
stockbroker whose enthusiasm in pursuit of Mandarin amazes and amuses his

His first question of the night during one recent class, delivered in the
accent of his native Poland, was followed rapidly by several dozen
follow-ups: Why do you say two words for bladder? I have one bladder! For
one bladder its two words? What is word for state of Israel? What is word
for oral surgeon? If I go to study medicine in China, what do they teach
me? Nobody taught you in Poland to speak Chinese, Mr. Sygal said. Mr.
Sygal grew up outside Krakow and lost his parents on an August day in 1942
when German soldiers rounded up Jews, stripped off their jewelry and
machine-gunned them. His facility with languages helped him survive: He
spoke Russian with the Russian soldiers, Ukrainian with the Ukrainians and
German with the Germans, reserving Hebrew for private spaces. Once he
arrived in New York in 1949, there were two more languages to learn
English and Spanish.

Now, at 85, he has embarked on his last great linguistic effort. His
progress has been maddeningly slow; at one point, Mr. Sygal approached
dozens of Chinese people, he said, in a fruitless attempt to translate the
word ka-ching, a term he had seen in a headline in The New York Post and
assumed to be Chinese. He hopes that he will be able to carry on a
conversation in Mandarin by the time he is 95. If I be around, he said, I
be able to speak. To his left was Cathy Stenger, driven to this class by
the stubborn silence in her buildings elevator. She bought an apartment in
a Flushing co-op in 1986 and has since seen 90 percent of the units go to
Korean and Chinese families. She has a mute bond with a woman from the
sixth floor, who embraces her every time they meet, and with an elderly
man who soulfully grabs her hand.  The fact of the matter is, I cant talk
to them, said Ms. Stenger, 65, whose parents immigrated from Hungary.

Her interest is not casual. Her co-op board is threatened by a breakaway
group of Asian tenants, she said, who are challenging bylaws about
subletting or dividing units. A downstairs neighbor manufactures medicinal
herbs, and though the woman added ventilation after Ms. Stenger
complained, the scent sometimes wafts up through her radiator connections.
And when gas leaked into a hallway recently, Ms. Stenger said, one of the
neighbors hesitated to call 911 because she was afraid that she would be
charged for the service. Still, none of the changes have made her consider
leaving Flushing. A lot of my friends it bothers, she said. My friends

The Mandarin classes, now in their second 10-week session, were the
brainchild of Donald Henton, 73, a retired city bus driver who has lived
in Flushing since 1968. Mr. Henton asked Councilman Liu to sponsor the
lessons last year during a community meeting at which most of the comments
were made in Mandarin. He feels a responsibility for the classes success;
on Tuesday nights, he calls 40 people just to remind them to come. There
have been moments of disappointment for Mr. Henton, who expected the
classes to be standing-room-only. He has met cold shoulders among his own
neighbors in the Bland Houses, where 78 percent of the tenants are black
or Hispanic. On a sunny afternoon in the housing projects courtyard,
Robert Winston, whose family moved to New York from Jamaica, responded to
the idea of studying Mandarin with a long belly laugh. Anita Garcia, whose
parents moved from Puerto Rico, practically spat.

I was born here, said Ms. Garcia, who is 44. Why should I learn their
language? For years, tenants in the Bland Houses have worried that they
would be priced out of an increasingly crowded and prosperous
neighborhood. From the bench where he sits with his friends, Mr. Winston
said, he can see both the Asian-dominated playgrounds and the basketball
court used by the Bland Houses old guard. Mr. Henton, a longtime supporter
of Councilman Liu, agreed that big changes are coming. Its time to adjust,
he tells people at Bland Houses.  But only one of his neighbors is
attending the second session of Mandarin classes, he said, even after he
slipped 400 fliers advertising the lessons under tenants doors.

You know what they say? They didnt get it, he said. Still, students return
week after week. At break time, Ms. Lin leads them a clumsy, giggling
corps de ballet in dance sequences from Chinese opera.  A vivacious woman
who volunteers her services, she peppers the class with small revelations:
Under Chinese etiquette, when you sneeze, a person will pretend he or she
did not hear you; Chinese people will not ask or answer the question How
are you for fear of hearing or prompting a lie; the fourth of the tones
used in Mandarin known as the high falling sound is so difficult that if
you say it too many times, as she put it, you will feel hungry.

After six lessons, the students have begun to come to class with stories
of progress: words overheard on the subway, characters recognized on
signs. Dolores Morris, who has lived next door to a Chinese family for a
year and a half, finally approached her lovely neighbor. Affection has
grown between the two families, despite the language barrier. The
neighbors take out the Morrises garbage to save her husband, who is 75,
the physical strain, and they send their daughter to the Morrises door
with steaming plates of food. Ms. Morris, 63, decided to begin Chinese
lessons as a surprise. After a few lessons, she took a big deep breath and
went up to her neighbor in the back yard.

Nervously, she repeated the Mandarin phrase she had learned I am learning
to speak Chinese and proudly showed her textbook to her neighbor, who
looked surprised and disappeared inside. Though Mandarin is the dominant
dialect in Flushing, the womans daughter emerged from the house and
explained that her mother never learned to read or speak it; a native of
Fujian province, she only spoke Fuzhounese, the dialect spoken in the city
of Fuzhou and its region. Ms. Morris laughed, telling the story. She said
she has no immediate plans to begin studying Fuzhounese. As it stands,
when the neighbors bring gifts of food, Ill point to my mouth and rub my
stomach and smile, she said. Well probably keep doing that.


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