The subways in New York City are always unpredictable on the weekends, and this particular Saturday was no exception. It was opening night for the second annual Queens International Night Market: a large, open-air fair that features small businesses, live entertainment, and representation of what seemed like every culture living in the city’s five boroughs. It took nearly an hour to catch a train toward Flushing, Queens, where the market was taking place outside the New York Hall of Science. Perhaps it was because of the usual construction and delays, but the energy in the air said something different.
These excited New Yorkers were going to the international extravaganza, just like me.
Once I leaped into the crammed 7 car and the doors snapped shut, I caught my breath and began to listen to the surrounding commotion: the flood of languages, the thrilled voices, the booming tones. “Why is the 7 so crowded today? It’s not like there’s a game or anything,” said a nearby quiet voice. I looked over my shoulder, smiled, and proclaimed, “It’s the International Market today, that’s why.”
The whole concept began with local John Wang, founder of the Queens International Night Market. After seeing his share of night markets around the globe, John realized there wasn’t one anywhere in New York City, which he saw as an opportunity for a diverse population to come together and learn from one another. For opening night, 43 food and retail vendors signed up, and Wang expected a few thousand visitors to show up for this market concept entirely new to the city. The turnout of tens of thousands of people was shocking, and that’s when Wang knew this idea was worth pursuing.
This year, the market moved to a more spacious park outside the Hall of Science to accommodate a larger crowd. Among the 82 vendors (52 selling food and 30 retailers) at opening night were those cooking up every type of ethnic cuisine imaginable (from Japanese rice flour crepes to Southern styled fish & chips), plus retailers marketing cultural crafts and jewelry.
Although the market takes place every Saturday throughout the summer, many wanted to capture the energy of opening night—myself included. Once I got off the subway, I followed the crowd heading to the outdoor event. As the crowd increased at the entrance, I saw a smiling woman who clicked a device every time someone passed her. I could almost read her mind: The turnout was, once again, surpassing expectations.
On one side of the grassy field, there was a bar section where a rock band was playing. Four to five musical bands varying in genre circulated throughout the evening, some performing for publicity while others were there for the fun of it. Rows of picnic tables provided a safe haven for large families looking to take a break and enjoy their fair food out of red-and-white paper containers.
The tented food area felt like another planet. As I walked right of the market’s entrance, I was suddenly shoulder-to-shoulder with a swarm of the city’s population. Lines of eager customers waited for their cuisine of choice, and as I tried to dodge the madness, I spotted a vendor called Headbanders with vibrant jewelry spread out on the table. Specifically, what caught my eye was the evil eye bracelets, or as we Greeks call it, mati. I moved toward the collection of beaded bracelets with painted-on eyes, and a heavily accented voice piped up next to me.
“You know what that is? My friend has one of those,” the Hispanic woman said. “It’s supposed to take away evil spirits, or something like that.” I smiled at her as I rolled up my right sleeve, revealing a blue-and-white evil eye bracelet, and received a warm smile back. She and I had no idea who the other was or where we came from, but in that moment, we made a connection.
Although the market was jam-packed, resulting in moments of frustration and annoyance, its incredible energy reflected the surrounding borough and NYC at large filled with international influence.
“One of the cool things about the market is the demographic of our visitors, because there is no demographic,” Wang told AFAR. “You can probably go to other markets and pinpoint the audience, but here it’s not a certain kind. Just an audience.”
The Queens International Night Market will take place every Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight until August 20 at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing, Queens. And with different performers and vendors circulating on a weekly basis, every visit will deliver a unique experience.
© 2016 AFAR Media