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."

The long-standing meta-narrative of Washington is that of a black urban core locked in uneasy truce with its rootless white suburbs. A 2001 study by the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, however, contains surprising news for people who still see the city and its environs in those terms. "Unlike some other major immigrant destinations such as Miami or Los Angeles, where one or two immigrant groups tend to predominate," says the study, "Washington's flow is diverse." Nearly two hundred countries are represented, with the top ten spanning Central America (El Salvador), South America (Peru), Asia (Vietnam, China, South Korea), Africa (Ethiopia), the Middle East (Iran), Oceania (the Philippines), and the Subcontinent (India and Pakistan).

Moreover, each of the ten metropolitan Washington zip codes with the most new immigrants draws from more than a hundred countries. In other words, instead of settling into separate ethnic neighborhoods, as Italians and Irish and Jews and Chinese did a century ago, the new arrivals scatter. In yet other words, they integrate. They work beside native-born Americans, they live beside them, and they suffer beside them. The third victim of the Washington-area sniper last year was a taxi driver named Premkumar Walekar, originally from Pune, India. He was shot while pumping gas, the Los Angeles Times reported, "moments after buying a newspaper, a lottery ticket and a pack of gum."

Washington, for so long a lagging indicator of American social life—far behind edgy New York and buzzy L.A. and brazen Chicago and even upstart Atlanta and Houston—is now, of all things, a harbinger. Increasingly, the Washington area is the post-racial America that we have all been told to expect. A member of Congress who wonders what a genuinely multicultural country might look like need only rustle up taxi fare to Arlington and walk around. My immediate neighbors include a black-white couple, a Filipino psychiatrist, a Korean accountant, and two Indian families, whose kids' names I can't pronounce. I have never lived in a more neighborly neighborhood. If this is the future, it seems to work.

When spring finally sprang this year, I came home one Sunday afternoon to find our place aswarm with Aus, the four children bantering in Cantonese with an occasional aside to me in shy English. Under Michael's direction this Chinese task force had descended on the yard to plant flowers. Thus does new growth take root in northern Virginia, rejuvenating the soil. This Independence Day will be the Au children's first in America. Through their eyes I will see the fireworks afresh.