How a 1.5-Generation Immigrant Came to Love the Strip Malls of America

“The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel” for National Geographic Traveller India. ♦

Washington DC, USA

“Welcome to the Valley of Death,” said my dance classmate grimly. We stood on the stoop of our Kuchipudi teacher’s cookie-cutter clapboard house, contemplating the uniformity of the landscape around us. Once farmland, this developed acreage in Maryland, U.S.A. was now divided into fields of row houses, duplexes, and McMansions, stretching to the horizon.

It was around 1999, the start of a new millennium. Films like The Truman ShowPleasantville, and American Beauty played in our mall multiplexes, the screens reflecting a sinister vision of the white picket fences outside. My friends and I—mostly 1.5 generation immigrants from Asia or Europe—lived in permanent horror of the suburbs.

Ensconced in an older, tree-filled town, close to posh Northwest Washington, D.C., we were inadvertent snobs of the urban outskirts. But the feeling of being caged was real. Sparse public transport meant carefully timed, usually curtailed trips, via local bus and metro, into town. Sometimes we took a bike trail that led all the way to the antiseptic waterfront at Georgetown, where we sat on the concrete sidewalk outside yuppie, yacht-themed restaurants. If Georgetown was an escape, it was a very limited one, with only a few interesting shops—selling records, punk piercings, hair dye, and drug paraphernalia—amongst the frou-frou boutiques and expensive bars that we were too young for anyway.

Even when some of us started driving, there was still the city’s curfew for under-seventeen-year-olds to contend with. Supposedly a measure to combat Washington’s gang and drug-related violence, the law was more precisely a way of policing its majority black population. The black neighbourhoods were, of course, off limits to us tender suburbanites. One evening, a friend and I got on the wrong side of the Green Line: our paroxysms of giddy, tantalizing fear at the announcement of its destination—the no-go zone of Anacostia—were truly shameful.

Embarrassed at being so cloistered, I dreamt of living in the big, melting pot city of New York. When this dream came true about ten years later—post-Giuliani and peak-Bloomberg—I was disappointed to find that the diverse, gritty neighbourhoods of my imagination felt tamer than those of Delhi, where I had been living before and to which I returned. As for DC, I barely looked back after leaving it for college.

But without realizing it, somewhere along the way I started to think of the hated suburban hometown of Bethesda as my hometown. When a few scattered school friends convened there last summer, I joined them, full of curiosity about what Washington would be like as an adult.

Beyond its usual tourist attractions, the capital had changed almost beyond recognition. Thanks to an unprecedented surge of gentrification, which took off just as I left, neighbourhoods I’d hardly heard of—H Street, Chinatown, U Street, Columbia Heights, “NoMa”—were now real estate buzzwords. We were now old enough, and just about rich enough, to enter their mushrooming hipster restaurants and bars.

After a couple of forays into the city, however, the familiar feeling of uniformity crept in. The all-consuming packaging, steep pricing, and palpable undercurrent of tension between newcomers and old residents reminded me of the same process I had seen nearing completion in Manhattan, and on an upswing in pockets of Delhi.

I started thinking about how the most interesting parts of New York were actually in its boroughs: the Palestinian and Pakistani food in far corners of Brooklyn; the Thai and Indian markets in Queens. I remembered childhood weekend pilgrimages to the Indian supply store (not too far from my dance teacher’s house), with its tubs of mango ice cream, its rows of spices, and its music and video cassette collections.

The Plaza turned out to be the stuff of American greatness: an East African wonderland in a strip mall, overshadowed by a tall residential tower.

So, with a little help from the Internet, my friends and I set out one evening towards Virginia, aiming Google Maps at a destination dubiously named Build America Plaza. The Plaza turned out to be the stuff of American greatness: an East African wonderland in a strip mall, overshadowed by a tall residential tower. Amharic and Arabic signs adorned the rows of shops, which sold everything from teff flour and travel packages to nighties and hookahs. Picking one of several Ethiopian restaurants, we settled in for a feast of kitfo, tibs, stewed vegetables on injera, and glasses of honey wine in the good company of DC cabbies.

Venturing out on to the Beltway over the next couple of weeks, we discovered tiny banh mi joints and banquet-style Chinese restaurants. We found Korean food at one petrol pump, and fresh takeaway sushi at another. One day, we drove out to a county beach on the Chesapeake Bay, where we sat, along with several Latin American families, enjoying the lukewarm, brackish water—a far cry from the Georgetown waterfront. Perhaps the Valley of Death held more pockets of life than I had presumed.

This story was originally published in National Geographic Traveller India.

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