When most people think of Flushing, they tend to think of hectic traffic, overflowing street markets, noisy crowds slurping authentically mouth-numbing food. (Unless they think primarily of the Mets, in which case I’m not terribly interested.)
It’s true that anyone stepping out of the Main Street station is likely to stumble upon images like these:
But, as I recently discovered, there are also scenes like these unfolding every morning just blocks away:
I was born and raised in Flushing, and it wasn’t until I moved to Beijing about ten years ago that I became familiar with the sight of flocks of casually dressed, middle-aged locals practicing tai chi in perfect unison in ancient parks, in the Temple of Heaven, in parking lots, on street corners—on seemingly any square of pavement, so many of which appeared and disappeared and appeared again in those days of urban development at warp speed. I decided to learn the discipline, and I found that amid the tumult of life in a city of twenty-million-plus, there was nothing like focusing on a movement like “cloud hands” for a few minutes in the morning.
When I returned home to New York, I feared I’d lose my tai chi forever. Partly to keep my own memory fresh, I tried to teach it to my dad, who was skeptical. It was a badly conceived plan, quickly abandoned—and soon, amid the daily grind of long work hours and long commute times, I gave up trying to keep up my own practice, too.
But in the years since, tai chi groups seem to have sprung up all across Flushing—out in the open, in Kissena Park, the Queens Botanical Gardens, even the tiny playground where my sisters and I used to seesaw, as well as inside numerous church basements and nondescript buildings along Northern Boulevard. I’m sure there have long been a few practitioners of tai chi in the area, but it seems that now they have burgeoned into a great, kaleidoscopic community—one that now includes my father. He’s pictured above, in the blue track pants, alongside Teacher Du, a tai chi master from China who has become one of his closest friends.
Now, for Open City, I plan to have my father guide me through the places where tai chi is flourishing across Flushing, from the public parks to the hidden interiors, from formal classes to impromptu gatherings. In spending time with members of these communities, I plan to explore how they arrived at the discipline; whether they came to it fresh or carried childhood memories of, say, gym class in China; how it might have shifted their use and definitions of public and private space; how tai chi might figure in their own sense of themselves as immigrants and as citizens.
And how all of this might open a new window for me onto a neighborhood I thought I knew.