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 didn’t — but the sound was familiar. That was enough of a surprise that she paused in mid-aisle.
“It’s 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 can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ ” said Ms. Farren, whose Italian-American relatives cannot fathom why she hasn’t 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.
And it isn't just whites who are having problems:
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 project’s 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. It’s 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 didn’t get it,” he said.
And Asians are supposed to be the "good" immigrants!