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Out of Washington – A Portrait

Please note that the names of the people mentioned in this article have been changed. Please note, also, that NoVA is shorthand for Northern Virginia — a region which borders Washington, DC and stewards much of the city’s international diversity.

“I was going to go back to Chicago after finishing my ophthalmology training, but I decided to stay here. It feels more like home.” Dr. Demirdjian looks at me, shrugs his shoulders, and continues our conversationally uplifting examination of my eyes. He talks me through it as though I was a student suffering from test anxiety. There are no right and wrong answers, and though I know this, his encouragement makes me feel sweetly accomplished. At the end of it, he gives me a free pair of contacts, and I leave the office with 20/20 vision.

I go next door and talk to Karina, a young woman who embodies the best of NoVA. Of Malaysian and Guyanese descent, Karina began her studies in ophthalmology in community college, and will shortly be leaving her parents and her hometown to begin a program a couple hundred miles away. “Tuition is not a problem because you can always take out loans,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “It’s the rest of it — but I’m going to go because it’s such a great program.” She answers my questions about blue light and sunlight with the authority of an expert, and with the breezy colloquialisms of NoVA. Giggling our way though my eyeglass order, I let what we share seep into me. Growing up global in and around this little city — a place that belongs to none of us, but functions as a toy town to us all.

I feel absolutely nothing in common with many people here. But on the way home I also lived something else.

In NoVA, you pass burkhas and Bollywood, Spanish and Swahili, hookah and horchata, Qurans and crucifixes, without batting an eyelid. Admittedly, this is not a culture that encourages intimacy among strangers, and here, the line between apathy and acceptance is often a fine one. But on the other hand –

I think of my new optometrical (?) friends — the ease with which they embody diversity, and I recognize that this is a human capacity that is not easy to come by. To be neither overawed nor dismissive of “the global” (or, to use my least favorite phrase ever, “the other”), but to greet it like an old friend. Even those of us who live in that globality (or, to use a variation of my least favorite phrase ever, otherness) all the time fail to consider what such a greeting would look like on a social scale. Perhaps NoVA, with its astonishing lack of surprise at its own multiplicity of ethnicities, religions, nationalities, languages, and mixtures of these, has something to teach us.

In some senses, though, this is a region asleep and unaware of the crucible that it is. Perhaps then, we have something to teach it.

“Yeah, this place is nice,” I replied mildly to Dr. Demirdjian. “Very diverse.” He did not reply, and for a moment I worried I’d succumbed to a cliché. Maybe all of his patients commented on NoVA’s diversity, as a shorthand for, “After all, you are here.” I knew first-hand what such tokenism looked and felt like. But by “diversity,” I was referring to the possibility that here in NoVA lie answers, contained in the experience of people from all corners of the globe. Demonstrating that capacity within us, and living by example, is perhaps the shared challenge of those of us who claim this story.

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