By Felipe Alexandre
Ever since I first set eyes on Flushing in 2008, I was fascinated by its energy, diversity, and amazing food selections. I truly felt that it was an enormous privilege to walk these streets and witness American immigration happening right before my very eyes. With that wave comes amazing opportunities for us to experience different cultures, food, customs, and language. I knew then that eventually I would have a law practice here and I consider myself blessed to have achieved that dream and to be able to serve clients in Flushing on a daily basis in their quest to obtain lawful immigration status. Plus, I get to practice my awful Mandarin on a daily basis!
I loved languages ever since I was a kid. I learned Chinese and lived in China for some time before ever even hearing of Flushing. Seeing Flushing for the first time was like running into an oasis in the desert! It was a place where immigrants lived, worked, and hustled after their American Dreams. I first came to Flushing when I accompanied a group of Brazilian school principals who were selected to come to Queens and learn about the local school system. I stayed at the Marco Polo Hotel (as it was formerly known) on Northern Boulevard. Since we arrived at night, I didn’t notice anything about the neighborhood that jumped out at me. I struck up a conversation with the concierge assistant. It turns out that he was from Shanghai, China and I had actually been living in China at that time, only a couple of hours away from his home city. We exchanged stories and then I asked him if there were any good Chinese restaurants in the area. He laughed, told me to go to Main Street, to make a left, and that I would see it. Well, I saw it and my life was forever changed.
I loved studying the Chinese language and culture, and because of that, Flushing and I hit it off from day one. I loved going into the several businesses and talking to people in their native language and learning more about them and this exciting neighborhood. For me, it was an incredibly privileged peek into the lives of a fascinating community.
However, I also realized that not everyone was able to enjoy Flushing like I had been enjoying it and a major reason for that was not having the language skills or cultural knowledge to communicate with the locals. Non-Chinese individuals would be too scared to strike conversations beyond ordering food by pointing to it on a menu. I also realized that the locals equally avoided situations to interact with non-Chinese individuals because they also lacked those communication skills and cultural competencies, and were too embarrassed to expose themselves, feeling bad for not knowing the local language of their new home. I realized that both sides were truly missing out on opportunities to create unique friendships and cultural experiences. For that reason, I decided to launch the Queens Chinese-English Language Exchange Group on meetup.com. It was my vision to bring together non-Chinese individuals interested in learning about the Chinese culture and language with Chinese individuals who wish to learn or improve their English language skills and understanding of American culture.
We have had some great meetups where folks challenge themselves linguistically and also get to learn about another culture from people who are experts on that culture. We have met at cafes and different restaurants. We have even had karaoke gatherings in Flushing where we learn language as we sing English and Chinese songs (Spanish songs find a way to pop their heads in too). We currently have 570 members and growing.
It is my vision to expand this meetup beyond the reaches of meetup.com for the community at large to enjoy. With large gatherings, we can pair people based on language level and make it a fun and interactive experience for everyone. I love seeing folks relish in the experience of interacting with each other and I am moved by the thought of knowing that they probably would not have a chance to interact like this if it wasn’t for the meetup. I hope that 2019 will be our best year ever and that we can truly bring Flushing together as we embrace our languages and heritage. In the meantime, our team at Alexandre Law Firm will continue fighting for immigrant rights and helping immigrants reach the American Dream!