Olympic emotions take expats home

August 5, 2012

There’s nothing like the Olympics to lift national pride and spur international rivalries — and to remind immigrants of the cultures they came from.

For many members of Washington’s vibrant international community, the London Games have been an excuse to renew old allegiances. They also have given the younger generation a reason to celebrate a parent’s culture, and sometimes they have opened up old political wounds.

We found Arlington’s U.S. Tae Kwon Do College filled with South Koreans cheering on their soccer team, an African sports bar in Alexandria packed with Ethio­pian Americans rooting for their female sprinters and an Eden Center karaoke hall packed with Vietnamese Americans singing traditional songs — and booing China.

“We came out of communism,” explains Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce in Falls Church and owner of the nightclub V3 Lounge. “We’re upset if China gets too many medals. We root for the Americans!”

Here’s a glimpse of how Ethio­pian and Russian immigrants in the D.C. area celebrated the first week of the Olympics.

At an Ethio­pian sports bar

When Abiy Bisrat, owner of Enat, an Ethio­pian sports bar in Alexandria, featured in the above photo, heard that Ethi­o­pia had a very strong running team headed to the London Olympics, he went out and bought an 80-inch television.

“We already had three smaller flat screens,” he says Friday afternoon, as the women’s 10,000 meter race begins. “But I wanted to really go big. Sorry, hold on,” he says over the noise of the crowd. “I have to go turn the TV even louder, customers will want that.”

The new purchase was worth it, he later decides, after female runner Tirunesh Dibaba pulls so far ahead of the pack that she finishes more than five seconds in front of Kenyan Sally Kipyego.

“We loved watching her smile at the end,” says Bisrat, as ­waitresses dressed in the country’s yellow, red and green colors serve imported Ethio­pian beers and coffees.

At a Russian bar in Dupont Circle

Inside the sultry, maroon-colored bar at Russia House in Dupont Circle, bartender Julia Pudovikova, pictured above, 26, shakes and pours a “Moscow Mule” cocktail and remembers when she was a child gymnast back in her native Russia.

“I wasn’t that good, but I have nice memories,” she says. The Russian staffers here gather to watch the Russian gymnasts when business is slow. While Russia has long excelled at gymnastics, the United States has been the star this year.

“I’m happy for the U.S.,” Pudovikova says, pouring a stream of Russian-made vodka for American patrons during a recent happy hour. “But I’m sad for Russia. I guess there’s always the synchronized swimming team — they are also amazing.”

At a Chinatown center

“Every country owns a sport. We own Ping-Pong,” chuckles Ken Yang, 17, as he glances up at a flat screen showing the Olympic Games inside the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, housed near Gallery Place.

He moved with his family to the United States from China four years ago, and he and others say that despite the fact that China has one of the top medal counts in the world, most Chinese Americans watch the Olympics at home. They don’t have a pub culture; they don’t even sit around at Starbucks, says Linda Wang, director of operations at the center. Nonetheless, about 25 young people gathered at the cultural center Thursday afternoon and said they like to have the Olympic Games on — in the background — while they hang out, learn Chinese calligraphy and play Chinese checkers, mah-jongg and, of course, Ping-Pong, known in the Olympics as table tennis.

“Compared to the Chinese Ping-Pong champs [such as] Zhang Jike, we aren’t that good,” Yang says. “That’s why we need to watch and get better. They inspire us!”

At Korean Cultural Center

Korean Americans are swooning for soccer, glows Hosan Kim, 34, project officer at the Korean Cultural Center Washington.

Ever since South Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup with Japan, Koreans have been supporting their soccer team in public gatherings.

Love has made Koreans do things they never would have before, says Kim, who organized a viewing of South Korea’s Olympic soccer match at the U.S. Tae Kwon Do College in Arlington.

“The dynamics have totally changed. We wouldn’t have come out before, but now everybody wants to meet and cheer en masse, in public for our soccer players,” he says, wearing a white T-shirt that read on the front, “Go Team, Korea,” and on the back, “See you at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang,” which is being hosted by South Korea. “It’s just a great thing to be all together,” Kim says.

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