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The Eastside express lane to the American Dream

Downtown Bellevue Credit: Photo: Tom James

The world has converged on the Eastside in the past 20 years, and as usual, preening Seattle hipsters are the last to know. Many (and I confess I’ve been one) still picture Bellevue and its neighbors as bland, homogenous strip mall and cul-de-sac nowheresville — “a yuppie, upscale, white-bread suburb,” as the marketing director of Cellophane Square called Bellevue in 1994, after his company deigned to open a store there in 1985. In 2011, a Seattle songwriter named Igor Keller updated the stereotype in an album entitled “Greater Seattle”: “Yuck, Bellevue! It’s such a soulless place! Yuck, Bellevue! They’re enemies of the whole human race!”

The cul-de-sacs and strip malls are still there, along with much more opulent malls and enough outsized SUVs to make a Subaru-driving Seattleite feel like a Tonka truck at a big-wheel rally. But the people living, shopping and riding in them hardly match the stereotype. It turns out that many people from Shanghai, Chennai, Moscow, Mogadishu and most points in between want the same things that drew upwardly mobile native-born Americans out from the teeming cities to the greener suburbs in past decades: bigger, newer houses; spacious yards; safety or the perception of it; and, above all, good schools for their kids.

In the white-flight years of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, those amenities were reserved for those with names like Bailey and Roberts, or at most, Bernstein and Rossi. Today, the allure endures, but with a very different complexion.

Conrad Lee was an early adopter of the immigrant suburban ethos. He came to the States from Hong Kong in 1958 – one soul in the mid-century “forgotten wave” of Chinese immigrants – moved to Seattle in 1962 and became an engineer at Boeing. In 1967 he crossed the lake to Bellevue and never left. In 1994, he was elected to Bellevue’s city council. Today, he is its mayor.

Bellevue mayor, Conrad Lee. Photo: City of Bellevue. 

Kim Pham was a member of a more sudden and conspicuous immigrant wave: the refugees who poured out of Vietnam in the late 1970s, after surviving the battlefields and reeducation camps. He and his young family landed first in Tacoma, where he found work as a designer at a shipyard. They moved from there to Seattle’s Beacon Hill, where Kim started Northwest Vietnamese News, a Vietnamese-language weekly newspaper based just down the hill on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

He and his children still publish it, but he no longer lives nearby. By the mid-1980s, many doctors and other leading figures in the local Vietnamese community had moved across the lake, and his friends said Bellevue was the place to go. Two of his children were admitted to a program for gifted students at a Bellevue elementary school. After two years of driving back and forth across the lake each day, he and his family made the move.

Thushara and Asanka Wijeratna wasted no time getting to the Eastside. They’d worked a couple years as software engineers, first in their native Sri Lanka and then in the Caribbean, when Thushara landed a job at Microsoft in 1999. Asanka also went to work there, and they settled in Kirkland. Both have since left the company. Thushara joined a startup in Seattle, then another firm there. He says that’s where the entrepreneurial action is now in IT: “On the Eastside, it’s pretty much two big companies – Microsoft and Google. Seattle is more a startup thing.” He and Asanka enjoy visiting Seattle, but he’d rather join the commuter scrum on the Lake Washington bridges then move there.

What draws immigrants to the Eastside and keeps them there, even when, like Tushara, they go to work in Seattle? Lee could be speaking for all of them when he answers, emphatically, with a single word: “School! I needed to raise kids, and Bellevue’s the place to do it.”

It wasn’t just the Bellevue schools’ celebrated instructional quality (its average test scores place it among the top 10 districts statewide in math and science and the top 30 in reading and writing) or their ample tax base, which includes the wealthy lakeshore municipalities of Medina, Clyde Hill and the Points.

It was the counter-intuitively congenial social environment of what was then an upscale, predominately white, monocultural community. In Bellevue and Newport, Pham found, he didn’t have to worry about his three kids being bullied or sticking with their own kind for protection. The friction, suspicion and resentment that can arise when struggling minorities jostle against each were absent. “There’s more tension poor to poor,” he explains. “Eastside people are very friendly and generous.”

“We find common denominators instead of looking for differences,” says Lee. “It’s not like Los Angeles, where you’re all competing. If everyone’s fighting for the same dollar, it’s difficult. But wealth takes the pressure off. Instead of fighting, we continue to look to our success, so we can attract more opportunity, more business growth.”

That’s sales pitch as well as sociology: As Bellevue’s mayor, dedicated to forging overseas — especially Chinese — commercial ties, Lee has made it his mantra. But the trajectory holds. The immigrants of a century and more ago often took decades, even generations, to move from urban tenements and ethnic ghettoes to cottages and bungalows in the streetcar suburbs. Many of today’s immigrants have found an express lane to the American Dream.

Microsoft has been a powerful accelerator on that route. From 2001 to 2012, even as its stock price flattened, Redmond’s Mighty Micro filed 38,000 applications for special H1B visas to import skilled technology workers — more than 8,000 in 2011 and 2012 alone, almost none of them denied. Meanwhile, Microsoft sought green cards, which, unlike visas, grant permanent residency, for more than 13,000 — 7,000 in 2011 and 2012. Both categories of workers receive average starting salaries of about $110,000.

That’s an enormous infusion of both people and wealth in midsized cities such as Redmond and Bellevue, and it’s far from the only infusion; a fact that has contributed to some remarkable demographic shifts. By 2010, 22 percent of the Eastside’s population was foreign-born, a figure that has surely grown since. More than 30 percent of Bellevue and Redmond’s populations were immigrants, up from just 13 percent in 1990 — a larger share than Seattle’s 17 percent, and more than in any other King County municipality save Tukwila and Seatac.

Many immigrants to those two cities (and to Kent, the largest in South King County) come from different countries than those on the Eastside, and under very different circumstances. Relatively inexpensive housing has made them prime resettlement sites for refugees from such countries as Myanmar, Somalia, Bhutan and Burundi, who, in past decades, would have settled in South Seattle. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of Bellevue’s immigrants are from Asia; about a third of those came from China, a quarter from India and 12 percent from Korea. They tend to land with a leg up on the mobility ladder, bringing more education and, in many cases, capital to start businesses. Not to mention job offers from Microsoft.

As a result, the economic status of the Eastside’s minority communities is very different from South King County’s and even more different from Seattle’s. The median income of Asian households in Bellevue and Redmond is about $95,000, higher than those cities’ overall medians of about $80,000 and much, much higher than the median $52,000 of Seattle’s Asian households.

One possible reason, besides the Microsoft effect: Asians who’ve stayed in Seattle may be those who can’t afford to move and/or don’t care about schools – the elderly, the young and single parents. Those who can afford to, head east.

Andy Yip, president of the Hong Kong Association of Washington, notes another reason Hong Kong émigrés, who are flocking to the Eastside from way stations as near as Shoreline and as far as Vancouver, find it congenial: “All the upscale shopping. It gives them a Hong Kong feeling. People from Hong Kong are used to that, and they’re finding it thanks to [Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square developer] Kemper Freeman.”

Just 3.4 miles due east of Bellevue Square’s bling sits a very different shopping mall: Crossroads Bellevue Shopping Center, the coziest little shopping mall in the West and an aptly named community center for what may be the Eastside’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood. That diversity is both visible and audible at Crossroads. At its international food court, you don’t just sample dishes from faraway places, you hear the next tables speaking the languages that go with them.


A gathering of Microsoft employees in the food court at Bellevue's Crossroads malls. Photo: Erwyn van der Meer

Crossroads has its own library branch. At its center are racks of English as a Second Language (ESL) materials, naturalization guides in Khmer, Tigrina and many other tongues, and CDs by the likes of Seun Anikulapo Kuti and the Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster soundtrack, with not a Justin Bieber disk in sight. Workers and volunteers at the mall’s Mini City Hall help immigrants navigate the reefs and shoals of a strange culture, from bank accounts and real estate contracts to delicate linguistic misunderstandings. And in case anyone misses the message, a wall graphic at Crossroads mall proclaims “Community” in 17 languages. In this new suburban melting pot, city officials and nonprofit volunteers tirelessly promote the embrace of diversity (with no fear of sappy-sounding slogans), opening doors and helping the many new ethnic communities connect with each other.

The need is growing. Despite high average income and Hong Kong-style conspicuous consumption, the Eastside’s international community is growing more diverse, economically as well as culturally. Thousands of immigrants who don’t work at Microsoft, don’t know much English and don’t have a leg up on the ladder of upward mobility have arrived in recent years, seeking the same advantages Kim Pham and Conrad Lee found decades ago. They fill the anonymous grey and beige apartment complexes of the Crossroads, Factoria and Lake Hills neighborhoods. And they face the same economic and linguistic challenges as their counterparts in Seatac and Kent.

“Perceiving Bellevue as an affluent community is inaccurate,” says Susan Sullivan, a Medina resident who, with her Microsoft-alumnus husband and several others, founded a nonprofit called Eastside Pathways dedicated to helping every child succeed in Bellevue’s schools. “It is economically and racially diverse,” Sullivan says. “That change has come pretty rapidly, and the perceptions are just coming around.”

She speaks of being “stunned” at seeing the level of poverty in one elementary school, Lake Hills Elementary. Bellevue’s poverty rate, while still quite low, has risen in recent years, from 5.7 percent in 2000 to 6.6 percent in 2010. Its median household income, which grew 10 percent from 1990 to 2000 thereafter stalled at a little over $80,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars.  

Linguistic isolation is an even bigger challenge. A third of Bellevue’s residents speak languages other than English at home — mostly Asian languages, but with sizable Spanish, Russian and Persian cohorts. About half these native speakers of Asian languages say they don’t speak English well, with one exception: those from India, a polyglot nation where English is the lingua franca, a second native tongue for the educated classes.

The two immigrant Bellevues — one, anglophonic, educated and affluent; the other, scrambling for a foothold — meet at the city’s places of worship. The local Sinhalese community is too small to support its own Buddhist temple, so Thushara Wijeratna and his family occasionally attend a temple with many Cambodian congregants. He noticed that they seemed to speak very little English, at least with each other, even after decades in this country. “Most Sri Lankans we know in the area are in the IT field, so they have to learn English right away,” he says. But because the Cambodians are more numerous and established, “it seems like it’s easier for them to stay in their own community, interact mostly with each other and not work as much at learning English.”

Natasha Savage, whose Armenian Jewish family arrived from Azerbaijan about 25 years ago, notes the same sort of insularity among the nearly 100,000 Russian speakers in King County, many of whom live in Kirkland, Redmond, and other Eastside locales. “Some people here 20 years haven’t learned English beyond the very basics,” laments Savage. “They’re blocked in their own little world. To go eat Russian food — why did you come here? My goal is to bring them to America, if you will. To help them participate.”

Natasha Savage, founder of the Eastside's Eastern European-American Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Tom James.

Toward that end, she founded the Eastern European–American Chamber of Commerce, dedicated to uniting the Armenian, Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian, Kazakh and other Eastern European communities that are especially numerous on the Eastside. “Together is always stronger, together there’s always more power. Plus, we all came from the same culture, we participate in each other’s events. If every Russian shopped in a Polish store, that store would last a century.”

Other immigrant professionals who swim easily in the social and economic mainstream are also reaching back to help their compatriots make their way. Khawja Shamsuddin, an urbane retired banker from Bangladesh, volunteers tirelessly at both the Crossroads Mini City Hall and the mosque. Debadutta Dash, the Bellevue Westin’s group sales manager and an exuberant master networker, labors to build ties between the linguistically fragmented local Indian communities and between them and the homeland. 

Debadutta Dash is co-chair of the Washington State and India Trade Relations Action Committee. Photo: Tom James

But perhaps the most remarkable bridge-building has been undertaken by those who are traditionally silent, even within their own cloistered immigrant groups, such as Muslim women. “Four years ago, we were doing regular visits, talking to neighborhood groups and faith communities,” recalls Barb Tuininga, the Crossroads Mini City Hall’s coordinator. “We kept hearing the same theme, mainly from the women — they were caught in their own communities. It sounds scripted, but they said, ‘I love that I hear people speaking languages from all over the world, but I don’t know what they’re saying. I want to know about them.’”

Together with The Church of the Resurrection, and the Islamic Center of Eastside — known to many as the Bellevue Mosque – Mini City Hall convened a meeting across the hijab divide. 

Tuininga and her colleagues handed out index cards and asked the 20 attendees to answer two questions: “What question do you wish you could ask someone?” and “What’s the question you wish someone would ask you?” The most common responses: “I’d like to ask what it’s like to walk around Bellevue covered” and “I wish someone would ask me what it’s like to walk around covered.”

That launched a series of almost-monthly gatherings called Cultural Conversations, which have drawn as many as 80 women from across the cultural spectrum. Unexpected friendships have formed: Tuininga says an 81-year-old white American-born Eastsider has come to be “like a mother” to a young Somali single mom.

Both of them, and many more, are represented in a delightful cookbook that the cultural conversationalists undertook as a fundraiser, but which stands as a collective testament. This may be the first time matzo ball soup, Persian kookoo sabzi frittatas, chicken mole, Somali lahooh pancakes, German potato salad and Colombian empanadas ever canoodled between two covers.

The title says it all: "The World in My Kitchen." And in the backyard, and down the street and at the shopping mall.

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