I live in Kensington, Brooklyn, the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the United States, according to recent rumor.
I moved here with my adopted daughter when she was less than two because, as a single mom, I couldn’t afford Manhattan anymore. For the longest time I felt like I was stuck here, among the simple clapboard houses, hearing little but Russian on the streets.
She is 5 now. At first the sight of Hasidic men in long black satin coats and breeches and fur hats made me feel I was on a movie set, but now I merely notice. I’ve acquired a wonderful Azerbaijan babysitter, who treats my daughter like her own little sister. A friend is a Darfur refugee whose daughter was in daycare with mine. I’ve discovered fantastic tacos made by a motherly Mexicana. The turgid Turkish grocery clerk who merely grunted when my daughter knocked over a five dollar tub of jam is now someone I can chat it up with in very minimal English. Every night we greet a cat in front of the Guyanese mini-market, and whose owner has given me his recipes for eggplant. My Jamaican superintendent keeps a cage for little green parrots slung high above Ocean Parkway (they escaped from boxes at JFK years ago, probably an experience not unlike that which some of my neighbors may have had).
But I really didn’t see the larger picture until last night, at 3:30 in the morning. I went out onto the fire escape for some sweet night air and thought my neighbors down the street were still up, playing Indian music. As I listened I realized I was hearing the muezzin from a nearby mosque calling out prayers. Here it was, America, Brooklyn, and the clarion call of prayers in another language and religion, not my own, was being broadcast, peacefully, through the night. That’s when I realized, really, that this country isn’t mine just because I was born here; this country is anybody’s . I’ve tired of all the cliches, but at that moment it all fell into place. We all share this country. In theory, we are free to live here without disruption. You can come here from anywhere, and then if you’re lucky, you can live here, pretty much however you want. In another country, I thought, as I listened to the plaintive call, the only religion I could worship would be the one dictated to me; I would have to fit into the state culture, or be punished for stepping out of it. But here I can practice whatever I want, do commerce and send my daughter to school with people who think and practice in entirely different ways than I do. So now I believe what my immigrant neighbors believe: this is a special country. I dedicate this to my daughter, who came from Kazakhstan, and to all her future buddies.
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