The Eastside: An Express Lane to the American Dream?

A new immigrant story is playing out in Bellevue, Kirkland and beyond.

By Eric Scigliano April 9, 2013


This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Seattle magazine.

A Seattle magazine collaboration with

The world has converged on the Eastside in the past 20 years, and, as usual, preening Seattleites are the last to know. Many (and I confess I’ve been one) still picture Bellevue and its neighbors as a nowheresville of bland, homogenous strip malls and cul-de-sacs—“a yuppie, upscale, white-bread suburb,” as the marketing director of Cellophane Square called Bellevue, when the record store deigned to open an outpost there in 1985. In 2011, Seattle songwriter Igor Keller reinforced the stereotype in his album Greater Seattle, with the lyric: “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 outsize 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 your 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 midcentury “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 the Bellevue City Council. Today, he is its mayor.

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 Kim’s 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.


Seattle magazine and will host a happy hour forum on the Eastside experience. Join writer Eric Scigliano, Eastside leaders and editors in a spirited discussion over cocktails on Tuesday, April 23 at Chutney’s Fine Indian Cuisine in downtown Bellevue (938 1110th Ave. NE), 5-7 p.m. Parking is free in the adjacent parking lot. The event is free. RSVPs are encouraged (

Thushara and Asanka Wijeratna wasted no time getting to the Eastside. They’d worked a couple of 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 first one 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 520 and I-90 than move there.

What draws immigrants to the Eastside and keeps them there even when, like Thushara, 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, Hunts Point and Yarrow Point. It was the counterintuitively congenial social environment of what was then an upscale, predominantly white, monocultural community. In Bellevue and Newport, Kim 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 other were absent. “Eastside people are very friendly and generous,” he explains. “There’s more tension poor to poor.” It’s better to be a poorer neighbor of “people making $80,000 a year,” Kim says, than to be relatively wealthy among “people making $30,000 or $40,000.”

“We find common denominators instead of looking for differences,” Lee says. “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 a sales pitch as well as a sociological dictum; 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 bungalows in the streetcar suburbs. Many of today’s immigrants have found an express lane to the American Dream.

Crowded services at the Bellevue Mosque spill into the parking lot. Photo by Stuart Isett

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

Many immigrants to those latter two cities (and to Kent, the largest municipality in South King County) come from different countries than Eastside immigrants, 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 that of South King County’s, and even more different from that of 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 have 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 have the income 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 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 (shown above), you don’t just sample dishes from faraway places. You hear diners at nearby tables speaking the languages that go with them.

Crossroads has its own library branch; at its center are racks of ESL (English as a second language) 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 disc 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 the Crossroads mall proclaims “Community” in 17 languages. In this new suburban melting pot, city officials and volunteers tirelessly promote the cause of embracing diversity (with no fear of sappy-sounding slogans), opening doors and helping the 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 gray 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 the level of poverty at one 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 more than $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 of 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 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 (shown left), whose Armenian and 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, Bellevue 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.” Toward that end, she founded the Eastern European–American Chamber of Commerce, dedicated to uniting the Armenian, Jewish, Ukranian, 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.

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 started 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, the Islamic Center of Eastside—aka the Bellevue Mosque—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 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 lahoh pancakes and German potato salad 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.

Hong Kong-born Conrad Lee has been a member of Bellevue’s city council since 1994 and its mayor since early last year—on city hall grounds

No Politics, Please
Many arrive and prosper, but few want to run for office. That’s starting to change.

Immigration has transformed the Eastside’s demographics, culture and economy. But what about its politics? Why are its immigrants and other minorities largely absent from elected office?

Not entirely absent, of course. The Eastside’s political leadership includes two notable trailblazers: Hong Kong–born Conrad Lee, a member of the Bellevue City Council since 1994 and its mayor since early last year, and Representative Cyrus Habib, who last November became the first Iranian-American elected to a state legislature, and the highest-ranking in public office nationwide.

But both these milestones come with caveats. Bellevue’s civic administration is headed by a manager, not a mayor, so being mayor there is like being president of the Seattle City Council. And Habib’s story isn’t one of hardscrabble struggle or deep ethnic-community roots. He was born in Maryland and grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu. He was a Rhodes scholar and editor of Yale University’s law review.

There have been a few other officeholders. Tiny Medina (population 2,969) has two Asian-American City Council members, and Issaquah formerly had one. But immigrants and other minorities are otherwise conspicuously absent from Eastside office, considering their share of the population—and considering how prominent they’ve been in Seattle since 1962. That’s when Wing Luke was elected to the Seattle City Council, the first Chinese-American to hold a major office in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, Seattle has elected Filipino-, Korean- and Chinese-American council members, plus four African-Americans. King County has had Chinese- and African-American council members and executives, all of them from Seattle. Norm Rice was one of the first black mayors elected in an overwhelmingly white city nationwide, and Seattleite Gary Locke was the first Asian-American governor of a mainland state.

Why have their Eastside counterparts been so slow to appear? Lee believes mainstream success leaves them unconcerned about politics. “They may be assimilated and knowledgeable, but they don’t need government that much, so politics doesn’t make a big difference. Second, they’re concentrating on their families, educating their kids. That’s why I got into politics in my 40s.”

Furthermore, Lee suggests, despite their large share of the population, Eastside ethnic communities lack critical mass: “In a bigger community like Seattle, you have that kind of institutional network, encouraging more activism. There’s only so much resources to go around here.”

Habib notes that even in Seattle, minority representation is much less than it used to be: just two Asian-American legislators and one African-American, plus one City Council member of Japanese- and African-American ancestry. “It’s a wider issue,” Habib says. “The thing we’ve got to work on is recruiting candidates.”

If so, a natural recruiter would be Debadutta Dash, cochair of a group called the Washington State and India Trade Relations Action Committee, former president of the India Association of Western Washington, group sales manager at the Bellevue Westin, and an extraordinary networker. With their high educational attainment, incomes and English skills, many Eastside Indians would seem poised to plunge into politics. But, as Dash notes, most have arrived only in the last 15 years, since President Bill Clinton forged warmer ties with India and Bill Gates went there to recruit software talent, and they haven’t yet engaged fully in local civic life. Also, they are themselves divided into more than a dozen major Indian languages, each with its own association here. Dash has been trying to bring them together in the common cause of building business links with the homeland.

Both Dash and Bangladesh-born community volunteer Khawja Shamsuddin note one other big obstacle: 9/11 and the ensuing anti-Muslim backlash. After 9/11, Sikhs, whose beards and turbans make them especially visible, were harassed, even murdered, though they have no tie to Islam. “That set everything back,” Dash says. Even many in the Indian community’s Hindu majority have kept their heads down.

But that backlash is fading. Habib says that despite international tensions, his Iranian background was no drag on his candidacy. “It became a source of positive energy in the campaign. People identified with that experience,” he says. “There’s a big Russian community here—you might not think there would be a natural connection between the Russian and Iranian experiences, but they also came to this country seeking economic and political freedom.”

And now political representation? Entering politics is the necessary next step for the Eastside’s large Russian-speaking community, says Azerbaijan-born Natasha Savage, founder of the Seattle-based Eastern European–American Chamber of Commerce. “They think voting doesn’t matter. After 20 years, they’re still living in their old country. We need to sit at the table, have a say about where tax money goes.”

And so she’s sought a seat on Seattle’s port commission. “I picked port commission because this is an international gateway, a door to this country,” she says.

She may be the forerunner for many more candidates for other offices from many national communities. “The immigrants’ kids get educated here,” Dash says. “They understand citizenship and public life. You will see it. Things will be completely different.” —E.S.

This story has also been published at Look for more joint projects as Seattle magazine and Crosscut explore how the Puget Sound region’s social, political and business issues are shaping our community, culture and future.


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