The United States is perhaps the only nation built by immigrants. If another country is also, I do not know if it. No other nation has seen such an influx of foreigners destined to try to make a better life. This patchwork of ethnicities is, as our first African-American President recently shared, is our strength, not our weakness. European, African, South American and Asian immigrants have built the United States from our nation’s roots. Millions of people from around the world have flowed into our harbors to fill our cities with their languages, foods, and religions. Over the course of my life, I have been fortunate enough to live in three of my country’s largest cities where immigrant culture is most alive – New York City, Chicago, and now, Washington, DC.
In New York City, I was too young to have firm memories, but the city and its people shaped my perspective and the subconscious of my parents and other family members deeply. Many immigrants start their American journey in this city. In Chicago I was not much older but I have a few solid memories. Washington, DC has been the most recent stop in my journey. This city has offered me memories of people, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings. Although I feel that there is less diversity here than in either of my previous two homes, I think Washington, DC is more connected to the world. My home is a five-minute walk from the Capitol, and even closer to the Supreme Court.
If I walk far enough along Massachusetts Avenue –a block from my house– I pass in front of the embassy of nearly every country in the world. I have known the sons or daughters of more than one Senator or Congressperson. It is common to hear in a neighbor’s story of how their kid, riding a tricycle, nearly ran into Chris Dodd, or, a few years ago, Barack Obama. Neighborhood landmarks appear with regularity on broadcasts all over the world. Occasionally, you discover a family on vacation from France, and engage them in polite conversation, directing them to monuments and restaurants, ending with “Amusez-vous bien à Washington!” Or, during Inauguration, you listen to the babble around you, and, recognizing some, tap the person in front of you and say, “Sugnomai, eiste Ellhnika;” You engage them in a conversation about the city, the inauguration, half in English, half in Greek, and then they are swept away by the crowd. This is the global Washington; the Washington, DC the world sees and recognizes.
But there is another Washington, DC too. This Washington is accessible only to those who live here, and perhaps, a few others. You cannot know this Washington unless you learn it through years of living here, walking the streets, and talking to people. This is the Washington, DC that gets up early to ride the Metro to work, blending in with a rainbow mixture of faces discussing the poor quality of transit service and the grimy stations.
The Washington, DC the world sees is the National Mall, but this city also includes landmarks like Eastern Market and Meridian Hill Park that play an important part in the community. Beyond jogging on the national mall and biking to Mount Vernon, we– the residents of this city– appreciate what it has to offer on the local level. We do our grocery shopping at Eastern Market to enjoy the unique and local nature of the experience. We go biking in Rock Creek Park, convinced that nowhere else could we find such an undisturbed wilderness in the middle of a city. This is the Washington where, if you go through the quirky public school system and end up at Woodrow Wilson High School, you meet and go to class with white, black, Asian, Indian, Hispanic and students from every other reach of our world. So often ridiculed and condemned, our school system, like the country, derives its primary strength from its diversity.
Living here makes you comfortable in an environment where everybody’s different. Too often diversity is only superficially valued, but not here. We, living in the capital of our country, are strongly and fiercely aware of our nationality, and Washington maintains the vision of what that national identity is. As a country, we are unique, and as a city, we are more unique still.
With these two worlds–global and local–here, close together, it is not hard to view the local world in a global context. I can see and appreciate the union of the Capitol and Riverby Books: in one, I peruse novels, while a few blocks away in the Capitol decisions are being made that change the world on a grand scale. Worlds apart, these two spheres of existence are somehow a scant five blocks from each other. That is the experience of living in Washington, DC and it delivers to you an almost subconscious cognizance of how unique your city is, and how connected it is to the world.