Jackson Hts. Sidewalks Stained by a Messy Treat

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published August 13, 2012
The New York Times

On a stroll through the busy streets of Jackson Heights, Queens, Sahadev Poudel kept gesturing at the ground with disgust. He stopped on the sidewalks in front of sari boutiques and Indian grocery stores, pointing out stains that looked like dried blood.

“It’s all over the place,” said Mr. Poudel, 33, who immigrated from Nepal in 2004. “This is completely bad behavior that we brought from our hometown.”

The sidewalks of New York have long been blotted by black blobs where chewing gum met its demise. But the reddish-brown splotches that trouble Mr. Poudel are seemingly unique to the 74th Street commercial district, and they are causing friction among the South Asians who eat, work and shop there.

These are the marks of paan.

At a dollar each, paan has become a popular after-dinner treat in Jackson Heights. It is made by folding dried fruits, nuts and pastes into a betel leaf, a member of the pepper family. Some people like a sweet type of paan with candy-coated fennel seeds and rose petal preserves, chomping on it to freshen their breath or swallowing it to help digestion. Others go for paan with cured tobacco, despite warnings about blackened gums and oral cancer.

Whatever the mix, paan loses its flavor in a matter of minutes — leading to a messy end. To the chagrin of Jackson Heights shopkeepers, some passers-by spit half-chewed betel leaves and saliva onto the sidewalks, just as they did in their native countries.

“It’s now becoming an icon of Jackson Heights,” said Mr. Poudel, who runs an Internet radio station aimed at Nepalis in New York.

Paan dyes the saliva a reddish brown, giving it a bloodlike hue that may, in fact, be enhanced by traces of blood, since chewing tobacco can cause gums to bleed.

“It’s disgusting,” said Tala Haider, 16, who grew up in Pakistan and lives in Flushing. He said he occasionally bought sweet paan in Jackson Heights, but would never spit on sidewalks. “You’re seeing blood on the street,” he said, “and it just makes you sick.”

Spitting in public carries a fine of at least $200, said Alexandra Waldhorn, a spokeswoman for the health department. But shop owners say they have never seen anyone receive a violation.

Once paan spittle hits the sidewalk, the city does not come to wash it away. Kathy Dawkins, a spokeswoman for the Sanitation Department, said it did not remove stains, paan or otherwise, from sidewalks. But she promised that the city would “pay closer attention” to the issue.

The stains regularly set off debates in Jackson Heights, which attracts visitors from a mix of paan-chewing countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Many are quick to lay the blame for the ubiquitous blemishes on any nationality but their own. Older immigrants privately scold newcomers for clinging to the bad habits of their homeland.

On a recent night, a green neon sign with the word “PAN” — a variation of the typical spelling — glowed in the window of the Kabab King restaurant at 37th Road and 73rd Street. At his stand inside the restaurant, Abdul Malek folded betel leaves for a steady stream of customers. The restaurant’s manager, MD Yousuf, estimated he sold paan about 100 to 200 pieces of paan each week.

Asked about the stains outside Kabab King, Mr. Malek denied that his customers spit in public. He then added that 95 percent of his customers are from Pakistan, not his native Bangladesh.

One of those Pakistani customers, Mirza Ali, said he stopped by Kabab King two or three times each week to pick up sweet paan. It is a two-hour round-trip drive from Mr. Ali’s home in West Babylon, on Long Island, but he said the unique flavor was worth it.

“It’s very good enjoyment,” Mr. Ali, 43, said with a smile.

Sidewalks are not the only victims of paan.

Shiv Dass, president of the Jackson Heights Indian Merchants Association, said customers sometimes entered his two clothing stores and unintentionally drooled the red juice onto his merchandise.

He cannot easily remove paan stains, so he ends up discarding most of the soiled clothes. “That stuff doesn’t come out,” he said.

Mr. Dass and Mr. Poudel have proposed signs that would discourage paan spitting, perhaps written in South Asian languages like Bengali, Hindi and Urdu.

Emad Choudhury, who moved from Bangladesh in 1978, said he wanted to educate newer immigrants about American social customs. Mr. Choudhury, a car salesman, is organizing a convention this month in Boston that he said would draw 5,000 Bengali immigrants from across the United States. It will be a good opportunity to spread his message.

For now, however, store owners are suffering the consequences of paan spittle. The employees at the Delhi Heights restaurant on 74th Street, not far from Mr. Yousuf’s stand, said that they scrubbed the sidewalk with bleach every day but that doing so did not always remove the stubborn spots.

“It doesn’t look good for the customer or anyone else,” said Suman Oli, 27, an assistant manager at the restaurant. “That’s a very bad habit.”

For Nepalese Salon Workers, a Cultural Hurdle to Overcome

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published May 14, 2012
The New York Times

From a stool barely a foot high, the Nepalese woman hunched over the wrinkled feet of an older woman, attending to them with care and proficiency. She immersed the customer’s feet in a small whirlpool, snipping and filing away.

“I didn’t even tell my friends what I did here because I felt so embarrassed,” the woman said, reaching for a pumice stone to remove dry skin from the bottom of the customer’s feet. “Now, no more.”

The Nepalese immigrant, Rambika KC, was eager for employment when she arrived in New York City about a decade ago. She was drawn to beauty salons, where many Asian immigrants had found jobs after acquiring the necessary licenses with only a few months of training.

She now owns a salon in Glendale, Queens, which bears a reminder of her homeland: a panoramic photograph of the Himalayas. But she still remembers her beginnings in New York, when having to perform pedicures was nearly a deal breaker.

Women in Nepal, especially Hindus, touch only their husbands’ or parents’ feet as a sign of respect, said Tara Niraula, an advocate of immigrants’ rights and a former administrator at the New School who was born in Nepal and is considered an expert on Nepalis in New York. To touch strangers’ feet is to show deference they have not earned, Dr. Niraula said, and to label oneself as low-class, or at least lower than the person whose feet are being handled.

Amrit Rai, minister counselor of the Nepalese mission to the United Nations, acknowledged that many traditional Nepalis would frown upon female pedicurists. “There are people who will say Nepali women should not do that job,” he said.

But Mr. Rai said community leaders in New York were encouraging the Nepalese women who overcame their culture’s aversion to touching strangers’ feet. “They are courageous women,” he said. “We are proud of them.”

Many Nepalese women who have thrived in New York’s salon industry credit their success to Mohan Gyawali, who was an engineer in Nepal and now runs two salons in western Queens. He estimated that he had trained about 400 Nepalis to perform pedicures, manicures and other beauty mainstays, and to navigate the licensing process.

“If immigrants come to a new place, they need a new skill,” Mr. Gyawali, 49, said between answering phone calls at C Spa on Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village, Queens. “This is the entry point.”

It is not an easy transition. One of Mr. Gyawali’s employees, Srijana Shrestha, broke down when she realized the requirements of her new job. “I’m crying the first time I saw everybody doing pedicures,” said Ms. Shrestha, 26. She recalled thinking, “Oh my God, it’s so scary. I don’t like it.”

But customers alleviated Ms. Shrestha’s fears. When she touched their feet, they did not look down on her as she had expected they would.

Mr. Gyawali said his students were running over two dozen of about 50 Nepalese salons in the city, most of them in Manhattan. He said he was not troubled by the competition, viewing the other stores as job outlets for other Nepalis trying to make a living in New York.

Samjhana Khanal hired several Nepalese women to work at her beauty salon in Astoria, Queens, when it opened last November. Ms. Khanal’s standing as a young, female business owner would make her a rarity in Nepal, but she said she enjoyed running the salon far more than baby-sitting, which her relatives had suggested after she arrived in New York in 2007.

Ms. Khanal, 26, is an exception in another sense as well: she insisted that she had never felt uneasy handling strangers’ feet. She chuckled as she said her profession had worried only her father-in-law, who fussed that a woman of slight build like herself would be unable to effectively clean the feet of someone much larger.

She is prepared, though, to calm new employees who dread giving pedicures. She tells them that the customers are genial and do not look down on women who touch strangers’ feet. Indeed, patrons welcome the employees.

“They invite me to their birthday parties,” Ms. Khanal said with a grin. “They want to add me on Facebook.”

On a recent afternoon at Ms. KC’s salon in Glendale, Jessica Lewis and her fiancé, Joe Green, rolled up their pants for pedicures a day before their wedding.

Ms. Lewis said she had become a regular because the employees treated her kindly. As if on cue, the workers insisted that they would not charge Ms. Lewis that day. They asked that she accept the free pedicure as a wedding present.

Ms. Lewis was surprised when she was told that many Nepalese pedicurists were initially hesitant to touch strangers’ feet. She gestured to the woman ministering to her toes, which were separated by cotton balls, and said, “You would think she was born to do this.”