New York an ethnic melting pot - Abdullah Ahmad

Aug 5 1996

The Big Apple, I think, has a more genuine and eclectic ethnic/racial mix than any other major city in the world. London or Paris is probably the next step down as far as ethnic mix is concerned. Nearer to home is Sydney. Nearer still is Bangkok. Certainly there are more nationalities living in Bangkok than in Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City . Even when Ho Chi Minh was Saigon, it could not rival Bangkok in its racial mix.

New York City's old immigrants came from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Britain, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, France, Holland, Mexico, Africa, Jamaica and other Island, followed by the Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos. Then came waves of immigrants from Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hongkong, Taiwan, Cuba and Haiti. About a decade ago, a torrential flow of Russians arrived followed by a smaller stream of people from mainland China.

It does seem that the only people who have not arrived in droves to this "land of money and opportunity" are the Malays and the Indonesians. Already there are 5,000 Thai in New York city alone. Two years ago a Buddhist Temple was built to minister to a growing Thai population.

Filipinos represent the largest single group of Asians. They number more than a million but unlike other races there are no "Filipino towns" anywhere. Instead, we see the sprouting of China towns, German towns. Little India. Little Italy and Little Russia, and yet the number of these people is immensely smaller than our neighbours from north east of Sabah. Either the Filipinos have been assimilated into the American mainstream, as had the Jews (except the Orthodox), or they are not inclined to live together in Little Philippines.

What surprises me the most is that there are no Filipino restaurants in New York city or in the suburbs that I have visited. If any event none is listed in New York's well known Zagat Restaurant Survey of 1996, which covers 1,807 restaurants and believed to be the best and most varied list of restaurants anywhere in the world. In the survey, only two Indonesia restaurants are mentioned against Thailand's 35. Even distant Tibet has three establishments listed. The Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Indian restaurants dominate the Asian eating scene with all signs indicating that their positions is secure for now.

Surprisingly enough "the Dining Capital of the World," lists four Malaysian Restaurants . Penang is one of them and the food is actually very good. I dined there last week and found that it serves the best nyonya-Chinese food away from home. The freshly cooked Ikan Asam Pedas served to me that night was sedap, even tastier than the ones I had experienced at even so called notable eating places or restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, or Penang itself for that matter. Penang, which has branches in Flushing, Queens, Soho and two other places are well-patronised not only by the small Malaysian community, but Singaporeans, Indonesians, overseas Chinese, and Americans of all colours.

In New York the very useful languages to speak in and outside of restaurants, apart from English, are Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and the various Chinese dialects (mainly Cantonese), Japanese and Korean. At upscale restaurants, French is an absolute necessity. At the United Nations, one can afford to be monolingual if the language is English; definite plus is if one also knows either French, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese or Russian - all official languages of the UN besides the all-powerful English.

It is absolutely necessary for diplomats of any country to have a good or at least, tolerable command of spoken and written English for them to function effectively. Proficiency in "American speak" is even better, and this was demonstrated amply during the recent successful five-day visit of the newly elected Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Washington DC and New York City. Not only was he knowledgeable about American politics and how the US government works, he beguiled (and continues to charm) the American public with his superb " American-speak" and quick repartee. None of his predecessors spoke English or American English as well as Netanyahu does, or as smoothly for that matter. Having said that, and in spite of his eloquence, Netanyahu, I believe, cannot finesse the peace process forever. After the American presidential election in November, if he is reelected, and it does seem that be will, President Clinton may have to talk to Netanyahu differently.

Reflecting on the importance of being able to communicate well in English, the decision by our government to "receive" English in our schools should be applauded by all. We could potentially recapture what was lost - proficiency in English - soon enough.