Coming to America

With its diverse and dispersed immigrants, our nation's capital is a model of the post-racial society we've been awaiting

The Au family, immigrants from Hong Kong, arrived at Washington's Reagan National Airport on a sticky night late last July. I will never forget the sight of them: parents bustling after the long flight, children—three girls and a boy, ranging in age from eight to thirteen—heaped sleepily atop sixteen suitcases, as if the whole bunch had tumbled off the baggage belt.

They settled into a little townhouse in Arlington, Virginia, two Aus per bedroom and two more in the basement: spacious, by Hong Kong standards. The place belongs to my partner, Michael, who is brother to Mrs. Au, uncle to the children, and sponsor, for immigration purposes, of the entire family. He had applied for green cards for the Aus more than ten years ago, when he became a citizen himself. When permission to immigrate finally came, the Aus, a middle-class family headed by a recently retired civil servant, seized the chance.

For newcomers America is full of footholds. The Aus, Christians, immediately found a Chinese church only a couple of miles from home. Every Sunday they attend services in Cantonese. If they want bok choy or fried dace or duck's blood, they can walk to an Asian grocery just down the block.

In Hong Kong—where, because of its history as a British colony, many people use English names—the girls were called Queenie, Amanda, and Cassandra, the boy Bryan. In America, Bryan has become Chi-hang. That is the name in the official records, so that is what his school calls him—and anyway, isn't it more interesting than boring old "Bryan"? Asked which he prefers, the boy says that in Hong Kong he liked Bryan and in America he likes Chi-hang. This seems to him a perfectly natural arrangement. Clearly, the melting pot has changed since my grandmother passed through Ellis Island, in 1910.

Still, the mysterious process known as Americanization carries on. In the public schools, the Au children struggle with English but steadily improve. True to stereotype, they are whizzes at math. Last September, when I asked Bryan, who is ten, what he thought of life in the United States, he exclaimed, "I like!" (the first English sentence I heard from him). His older sister Amanda, a seventh-grader, was soon tying up the phone talking with her American friends.

When I moved to the northern-Virginia suburbs from central Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago, I expected to find Confederate flags and cured hams. Instead I found the Eden Center, where the flag that flies next to Old Glory is Vietnam's, and where you can have your pho with bible tripe and soft tendon. Eden Center is an all-Vietnamese shopping mall: Vietnamese restaurants, video stores, hair salons, travel agencies, jewelers, grocers, music shops, bakeries. Even the Muzak is Vietnamese. The place is packed every day, and not much English is heard there. For a long time, though, a red banner hung beneath its gate: "Soul and heart of the Vietnamese community always with the 9-11 tragedy."

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent.

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