When Lily Qi and her husband, Phil Peng, moved to North Potomac 14 years ago, she shopped at Korean grocery stores and occasionally drove to Northern Virginia for Chinese specialties.
Today she patronizes the Great Wall—“GW” to the locals—a large supermarket that opened in Rockville two years ago.
“The labels are in Chinese and they have a whole variety of fresh produce you don’t see in American grocery stores,” says Qi, 49, a native of China who is now the liaison to the Asian community for Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. “You run into people you know, it’s nice to speak Chinese and you don’t have to explain anything in English. I was very impressed with a young Latino guy over the meat counter—he spoke perfect Chinese to me. I was shocked!”
The Chinese population of Montgomery County is approaching 50,000, and these newcomers are part of a larger trend that is rapidly altering the ethnic profile of the community. One out of three county residents today is foreign-born and only 49 percent are non-Hispanic whites. Ten years ago that figure was 60 percent; 20 years ago, it was 72 percent.
Qi (pronounced “Chee”) calls Rockville “the capital of the region’s Chinatown,” and a range of Chinese-speaking professionals have set up shop here: mortgage brokers and real estate agents, financial planners and piano teachers. Social services have developed, as well—language schools, martial arts academies and elderly day care centers.
And there are many restaurants, of course. One spot Qi likes is Sichuan Jin River, not far from the GW on Hungerford Drive. “They serve chicken feet, intestines, all those gross body parts,” says Qi, a forceful woman with a hearty laugh and a few streaks of gray in her dark hair. “That’s our comfort food.”
When Qi and Peng bought their first house in the Travilah neighborhood, they were both working in downtown Washington, but “couldn’t afford anything” closer to the city. “To be truthful,” says Peng, 56, a financial officer in the D.C. government, “we didn’t want to move to this area.” Adds Qi: “We were horrified. It was so rural, nothing going on. We couldn’t even imagine commuting that distance.”
Good schools, however, proved more important to the couple than long drives. The word among Asian families is to look for a high school beginning with a “W”—Wootton, Whitman, Walter Johnson, Winston Churchill. In fact, jokes Qi, Wootton has so many Asian students that its nickname is “Wonton High.”
“We were not necessarily looking for an Asian community,” she adds, “but it turned out the same people were looking for the same elements and ended up in the same place.”
In some ways Qi and Peng are not typical of their neighbors, many of whom are scientists, engineers and computer geeks. But their journey reflects both larger and smaller themes—the history of China and the individual stories told by other immigrants.
Both come from middle-class families in Shanghai—Qi’s father was a government researcher, her mother a music teacher, and Peng’s father was an engineer. Farther back, Qi’s family owned mines and land, and Peng’s grandfather served in the nationalist government defeated by the Communists in 1949.
When the Cultural Revolution gripped China in the mid-’60s, both families were persecuted. Qi had a great-uncle, a famous opera singer, who either jumped from a window or was pushed by his enemies. Peng’s father was so publicly humiliated that he “lost his mind” and spent hours kneeling before a portrait of Chairman Mao, pounding his head against a wall and apologizing for his sins.
Qi and Peng met in college during the mid-’80s, when China first started opening to the West, and their big break came after Qi worked as a guide and translator for a visiting American professor. When the professor offered her a scholarship to Manchester College, a small school in rural Indiana, she jumped at the chance to leave China.
“We felt powerless,” she says, recalling the emotional scars left by the Cultural Revolution. “We felt the good life could be taken away in a place like that. We didn’t know China would become what it is today.”
When they first arrived in Indiana, they scrubbed pots and toilets to earn money. Qi worked in a deli and learned to make matzo balls. Peng learned English by watching daytime TV and Chicago Bulls basketball games on a tiny black-and-white set. When he decided to ditch his Chinese name, Yu, for an American one, he picked Phil in honor of talk show host Phil Donahue and basketball coach Phil Jackson.
Several degrees and jobs later, Qi became assistant director of multicultural affairs at American University in 1997. A trained musician, Peng struggled to find work here until landing a part-time position at a bank on the university campus. That led to his career in finance, but he still directs three Chinese-language choirs on weekends, and his two worlds symbolize the conflicting emotions felt by immigrants everywhere.
“You never feel 100 percent Chinese and you never feel 100 percent American, you’re somewhere in between,” Qi says during a conversation at an outdoor café in Rockville.
“Sometimes I have kind of a weird feeling…,” Peng begins, as Qi adds, “It’s unsettling, very unsettling…”
Peng finishes the thought: “When we’re in among the Americans, I don’t feel 100 percent in this group, although I would very much like to.”
Qi and Peng are part of the “sacrifice generation,” a phrase I first heard from a Vietnamese immigrant. That generation—the ones who leave home and settle in a new land—will never feel fully part of their adopted country. Only their children will.
I called the couple’s son, Andrew, now a junior at Tufts University in Boston, for his perspective on his family’s journey. “Race is still a factor” in America, he cautions. And he recalls an incident from his childhood, when someone stuck a “Made in China” label on the family’s front door.
But he is far more assimilated into American life than his parents. He studies sociology, not one of the sciences favored by many Asians. His Spanish is better than his Chinese, and he recently went to New York for a performance of Don Giovanni, an Italian opera written by a Viennese composer.
“I don’t think I could sit through a Chinese opera,” he says. “It’s not really suited to my taste.”
Steve Roberts is the author of From Every End of This Earth (Harper, 2009), an account of modern immigration to America. Send him ideas for future columns at firstname.lastname@example.org.