Seeking identity in diversity

New documentary is an intimate portrayal of Himalayan immigrants in a New York neighbourhood


A Flushing Local 7 subway train approaches the platform and commuters get ready to step in. The scene cuts to solid black. These first few seconds set the tone for the rest of Diversity Plaza — this is going to be a film  about people in motion.

Movement through time and space is something of a trademark for acclaimed documentary maker Kesang Tseten, with previous films like In Search of the Riyal, We Corner People, Castaway Man and Frames of War. Some of these films will be screened in a retrospective this weekend. 

For the next minute or so, Diversity Plaza shows us beauty parlours and nail salons, a kabab king, street vendors, a Covid-19 vaccine centre and a momo van. 

We are in Jackson Heights in the New York borough of Queens. A subtitle tells us it is ‘the most linguistically diverse zip code in the US and perhaps the world’.

Queens is home to 75,000 immigrants from Nepal, Bhutan and India. More than 60% of the people here are foreign-born and speak 160 languages. They are politically aware, and concerned about their place in a changing America, and an altered world.

There is an intersection in Queens actually named Diversity Plaza, and Tseten films immigrants campaigning for candidates for city council amidst the Covid crisis, while there are attacks on Asians after President Trump called the bug the “Chinese Virus”.

Near the Plaza in a nondescript building is Adhikaar which works for the rights of Nepali immigrants.  Among them is Dibya Shori Shakya, who ever so slowly writes her name and address on the board.

A group of women gathers to talk about being ashamed initially of their status as domestic help and nannies. “The children we raise will go on to become doctors, engineers or even presidents someday. So we shouldn’t feel lowly or discriminate against ourselves,” says one woman.

United Sherpa Association Inc may sound like a mountaineering outfit, but is a monastery. After prayers, devotees do yoga. Some asana are too difficult, and they burst out laughing.

Diversity Plaza
Screengrab from Kesang Tseten's Diversity Plaza

This is an intimate look at Himalayan peoples living in Jackson Heights, their struggles and aspirations. Some are busy celebrating festivals and keeping traditions alive, others try to assimilate and are more concerned with making their voices heard in their new country.

Adhikaar staff are out on the streets of New York including at Times Square in Manhattan, advocating for immigrant rights. They are also urging fellow Nepalis to fill up census applications.

“Census means numbers. What happens when there are numbers? Power, and when there is power, there is wealth… when there is wealth there is respect and when there is respect, there is recognition,” Narbada Chettri of Adhikaar explains on camera.

During the film’s hour-long runtime, viewers in Nepal are transported to the other side of the world, almost forgetting that the scenes are happening on a screen. The cuts are rough, almost cinéma vérité style, unlike some of the sleeker films being made today. Tseten does not embellish the stories, the landscape, the people. Like his previous documentaries, the film lays bare the raw reality of immigrant life in America. 

The director himself takes a back seat, his inputs barely discernible. But of course he is there throughout in the composition of the shots, selection of scenes, the final edits. Tseten calls it an ‘unprompted’ style modelled after American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Even though there is no script in Diversity Plaza, the documentary still has a beginning, middle and an end.

In Kathmandu this week, Tseten recalled how he was in New York in 2021, trying to persuade a character for his forthcoming film on the Bön Po, when he heard about Diversity Plaza with its strong Nepali presence.

He was familiar with Jackson Heights ever since he was a student at Columbia Journalism School in the 1980s, and it piqued his attention. “Diversity Plaza is like Thamel,” he says. “The restaurants are filled with our own people.”

The documentary ends on a high note, literally and figuratively. An immigrant from India performs a Karnatak song as the 7 train clatters above Diversity Plaza. She translates the verse into English before singing its original:

“Do not seek or mind similarity in identity in the world.

Why is it that we always look for the things that are the same about one another instead of celebrating and valuing our differences?”  

Diversity Plaza

Social Science Baha and's Kesang Tseten Retrospective will take place from 23 to 25 February at Nepal Tourism Board.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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